I am standing on a rise in Iraq, overlooking line upon line of domed blue and white tents connected by a maze of narrow rocky roads and a spider’s web of electrical cables hanging symmetrically and swinging rhythmically from metal poles.
Outside some of the tents small satellite dishes point hopefully to the sky, some sitting atop 44 gallon drums of kerosene – a family’s fuel for cooking and heating.
Water connection points dot the camp and communal bathroom facilities rise above the tents marking out the symmetry and allegiance to international standards of camp design for Internally Displaced Persons. A water tower the size of a small apartment block interrupts the view of a distant mountain.
There is a harsh permanent beauty to this place that has been overtaken by uncertainty, fear and incomprehension.
In the far distance, snow-capped mountains guard the valley and feed a small stream that meanders around the mesh and razor wire fence.
Contained within the fence, thousands of families – most arrived within the past five months, some in the past few days – are trying to make sense of the latest, and what looks like a more permanent eviction from their homes and neighbourhoods.
Mosul is about 20 kilometres away, and as I sit listening to another story of displacement I ‘feel’ and hear the whump of exploding air ordinance.
The people around me don’t even flinch. They speak of running from homes as bullets explode in walls around them and as aircraft scream overhead firing rockets into the neighbourhood.
Some had a day or two to get out – reading the signs, watching the news, hoping that it was not as they heard – but eventually and reluctantly getting out before the war arrived at their door.
Others got caught in the crossfire or the unpredictability of a war – escaping as soon as they could and mostly by cover of night. Many, many were not so lucky.
I met families and community and church leaders who spoke of thousands of Yazidi women still held captive by Islamic State – including their relatives – girls as young as 7.
I heard stories of bravery in the face of fear, of neighbour supporting neighbour and of people from surrounding cities such as Erbil driving their own cars toward the fighting to pick up strangers who had fled on foot – bringing them to safety and temporary housing in their own communities.
I wonder how I can describe the scale and the ‘feeling’ of these fenced off places; convey the stories of the people who survive here; communicate the unfairness and injustice, the overwhelming and insatiable need, the disappointment, the anger, the frustration, the gratitude, the fear, the hope, the confusion. Theirs is an inexplicable kaleidoscope of emotions and response. But, I don’t have the words to do this description justice.
I sit with a family in the tent that has become their home. A new baby has been born overnight, in the tent next door, without proper medical support. Mother and baby are doing all right, but the baby is jaundiced. A one year old cries for mum; two beautiful teenage girls sit quietly, almost on top of their dad; an 84 year old grandma sits in the corner wrapped in blankets, she says nothing; a young man and woman arrive to join us – announcing that they have just got engaged – they offer us sweet tea, and lunch, hospitality they can hardly afford.
I ask them what they think the future holds. They have little hope of returning home anytime soon. If they had the money they would get out of Iraq, they say, “to America or Australia” where they have relatives – and what was there to go home to anyway?
Mosul was a big multi-ethnic city. A major economic, educational and cultural hub. One person I spoke with (who has family in Australia and has visited them) called it the “Melbourne of Iraq”.
Can you imagine if Melbourne was attacked in the same way? If the East of the Yarra was systematically and deliberately destroyed by heavy artillery and street by street warfare, if snipers located on roofs on the West bank were shooting at any movement on the East. If more than three quarters of the population had to flee east and north and live in tents throughout winter?
I honestly can’t imagine it, it seems inconceivable – and yet to these displaced residents of a Mosul it was equally unlikely.
Piece originally published on mamamia.com.au