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Living in Fear

“We Hope They Are Alive.” Previous A Massacre in Ninewa Next

Young displaced Iraqis wait for food distribution at a camp on the outskirts of Erbil. —Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The vast majority of displaced persons in northern Iraq did not stay in their homes as the self-proclaimed Islamic State approached. They fled when they realized that the forces protecting them—either Iraqi or Kurdish—had abandoned their posts. In most cases, they had mere hours or minutes to collect any belongings. Now they cannot return home until their land is liberated. People who attempt to return may be forced to convert, and those who refuse to convert are likely to face death.

When the Iraqis who fled do return home, they will need physical protection. Given the chronic instability in Iraq and the presence of extremist groups, these communities again may become the targets of mass atrocities. It is unclear who has the capacity and the political will to protect these people. The vast majority of the Christians and Yezidis who we spoke with said they would feel safe enough to return only if an international force were deployed to protect them. After all, many villages have changed hands multiple times. This crisis is not the first time many of them have fled, although they find it is proving to be the longest.

Many displaced Iraqis feel distrust toward their Sunni Arab neighbors, and these Sunni Arab civilians also will need protection during and after the area’s liberation. Kurdish, Iraqi, and ad hoc paramilitary groups have little training in distinguishing civilian from fighter. Rampant distrust and fear will impede efforts to bring about reconciliation, will feed the desire for local self-defense militias, and will raise the potential for reprisal killings and future conflict.