Iraqi minorities volunteer to defend their lands against ISIL

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut
Iraqi youth sign up to fight in the local defence force at a volunteer centre in Ankawa. [Photo courtesy of Kaldo Oghanna]
Hundreds of displaced Iraqi minorities in the Kurdish region are forming a local defence force to protect their families and reclaim their lands from the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL), officials told Al-Shorfa.
The new force, currently in its recruitment phase, has reached out to the Iraqi government, Kurdish authorities and the international community for training support and weaponry.

The call for volunteers came after ISIL uprooted thousands of minorities from their homes, said Kaldo Oghanna, a leader in the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), which initiated the call.

Oghanna spoke with Al-Shorfa about the new force, its goals and the humanitarian crises Iraqi minorities now face in the wake of ISIL violence.

Al-Shorfa: How would you describe the current situation of displaced Iraqi Christians?

Kaldo Oghanna: They are living a real humanitarian tragedy. They are sleeping out in the open and in car parks, public areas and unfinished buildings under the scorching sun throughout Ankawa and Erbil. There are more than 130,000 displaced people from Mosul and Ninawa plain and villages who are homeless and taking refuge in the shade of trees, church courtyards and under bridges.

They are living a real tragedy after being uprooted from their historical lands. This was ethnic cleansing that targeted an original component of the population of Iraq, whose roots date back more than 4,000 years to the Babylonian and Assyrian civilisations.

Al-Shorfa: You recently opened the door for anyone who wishes to volunteer to defend their land. What were the reasons behind that step?

Oghanna: Our people asked us to volunteer to defend their historic lands and the Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean peoples. In deference to their wish, ADM opened its doors and now thousands of youths, men and elderly flock daily to join the local defence force in co-ordination with the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac parties.

Meanwhile, we asked the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government to co-ordinate with us and establish a base of operations to enable our and other minorities’ young volunteers to carry arms and train to defend their areas under international supervision.

Al-Shorfa: How will the defence co-operation take place?

Oghanna: It is imperative that the security issue be handled by the people in these areas, namely Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks, and that a safe zone be established under an international umbrella, whose form, mechanism of operation and role would be designated by the UN.

Al-Shorfa: How many have volunteered to date?

Oghanna: There are hundreds of volunteers of all ages, including Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Shia Turkmen. We are all in the same trench and have faced the same fate at the hands of ISIL.

Al-Shorfa: What skills and capabilities do the volunteers have to enable them to face this group?

Oghanna: We want to be real participants in the defence of our lands against the forces of darkness. We call for co-ordination with the security forces on the ground in this regard since this is the stage of purging the region of ISIL. We hope that the international community […] provides weapons to these volunteers to enable them to fight ISIL after they undergo training courses.

Al-Shorfa: What did the visit by Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs on August 20th mean to those displaced in Erbil?

Oghanna: The visit was very important to us, as it raised the morale of our people. The patriarchs told us we are all in the same trench and that we are one church. These words inspired us greatly to stand in solidarity. It is the first time that all Levantine churches of all denominations speak in one voice, calling on the international community to work diligently and effectively to [help our cause]. We hope their voice is heard for the sake of our salvation.