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Displaced Iraqis traumatized by Islamic State, betrayed by neighbors

August 20, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
The humanitarian crisis in Iraq is taking its toll on displaced Christians and those in the minority Yazidi community. As brutal attacks from the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State continue, hundreds of thousands have fled to the country’s Kurdish region. Margaret Warner toured one refugee camp near the Syrian border to find Iraqis in a state of shock and desperation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Other victims of the Islamic State in recent weeks include Christians and members of the Yazidi minority. Most who were lucky enough to escape have flooded the Kurdish -controlled region in Northern Iraq with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Tonight, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner takes a close look at these newly internally displaced persons, or IDPs, and efforts to contain their suffering.

MARGARET WARNER: A Boeing 747 touched down in the afternoon heat of Irbil today, carrying 100 tons of United Nations Refugee Agency aid, the first wave of fresh supplies since the U.N. last week announced a heightened level of emergency for Northeastern Iraq.

NED COLT, Spokesman, UN High Commissioner for Refugees: It can’t be done overnight. No one would suggest otherwise. But now the system is up and running in a major way. So, we’re not just getting materials in that we already have in stock, but we are bringing them in from around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: The tents in this shipment will shelter at least 20,000 people, but that’s just a fraction of the estimated 1.25 million Iraqis who have fled into the country’s Kurdish region since the self-proclaimed Islamic State began its onslaught here eight months ago.

Yesterday, a brutal wind whipped through the U.N.’s Bajet Kandela camp near Iraqi Kurdistan’s border with Syria. This camp was empty two weeks ago, but that was before I.S. attacked members of the minority Yazidi religious community in the town of Sinjar, forcing them to race for refuge on Sinjar Mountain. U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish forces helped thousands escape to sanctuary here.

We accompanied Dr. Syed Jaffar Hussain, Iraq country director for the U.N.’s World Health Organization, as he made his rounds through the camp.

DR. SYED JAFFER HUSSEIN, Iraq Country Director, World Health Organization: I think this is one of the extremely complex IDP crises at least I have witnessed, not only in the region, but beyond, not only the numbers, but also with the fast pace it happened, taking U.N. and the government unaware and unprepared for such a huge number of IDPs.

MARGARET WARNER: How does the psychological condition in which these Yazidis have arrived compare to other refugees and other displaced people?

DR. SYED JAFFER HUSSEIN: The interviews we have conducted with many of them seem to be extremely — what we call the post-traumatic stress disorder. You can see the gloom in their eyes, like a person who doesn’t know what will happen to him.

MARGARET WARNER: He stopped to see a family that had been in the camp more than two weeks.

DR. SYED JAFFER HUSSEIN: Can you ask him, the last few days, any of these children have gone to the clinic?

MAN (through interpreter): No, we haven’t, but they got here and did vaccinations. But we lack food. We only get some soup and some bad-quality rice.

MARGARET WARNER: We were invited by 19-year-old Fuad Hassan to the tent he shares with his parents and eight siblings. They fled Sinjar when they heard Islamic State forces were nearby, but one night on the mountain was enough.

FUAD HASSAN, (through interpreter): It was very bad on the mountain. We saw people being eaten by insects.

MARGARET WARNER: They were fortunate to find an escape route into Syria opened up by Syrian Kurdish fighters and made their way on foot to this camp.

So, Fuad, what comes next for you?

FUAD HASSAN (through interpreter): My grades were high. I would have entered medical college, but now everything is ruined. We want to go back to the homeland of our forefathers, but if we can find a country that welcomes us, we may leave here.

MARGARET WARNER: His 37-year-old mother, Zaineb Yusuf Asim, was overcome by feelings of betrayal.

ZAINEB YUSUF ASIM (through interpreter): We don’t cry only for ourselves, but for all Yazidis. They tortured us, attacked our honor, our religion. We have lived together with our Muslim Arab neighbors during the Iran-Iraq War, during the first Gulf War. We protected each other. Now they became our enemies.

MARGARET WARNER: This camp for 15,000 people originally built for Syrian refugees was the first place Yazidis found shelter when they escaped from Sinjar Mountain. As hot, dusty, windblown and under-supplied as this camp is, it’s far better than what others fleeing the mountain found when they arrived.

Forty miles east, in Dohuk, capital of Iraq’s northwestern-most province, we found what’s far more typical here, thousands of Yazidis living in half-constructed buildings. Khuduid Hussein, a construction worker, says the 150 people in his group are subsisting on private donations from local citizens. They have received no government help so far.

KHUDUID HUSSEIN (through interpreter): People in Dohuk are very welcoming. They have helped us. They give us bread, water and food.

MARGARET WARNER: You have all these beautiful children around you. What future do you see for these children?

KHUDUID HUSSEIN (through interpreter): If this situation remains like this, I don’t see that they will have any future. Soon, it will be winter here and many of them will die of cold.

MARGARET WARNER: His relative, 20-year-old Afra Hassan, is seven months pregnant.

AFRA HASSAN (through interpreter): I tried to go to the hospital here, but they wouldn’t give me any medicine because I didn’t have any money. It’s such a miserable situation. I wish I had died in my home.

HAVAL AMEDI, Deputy Director, Emergency Response Program, Dohuk, Iraq: Dohuk is the smallest governorate, with the smallest resources, with the highest intensity of IDP and refugees.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

Haval Amedi is deputy director of a committee set up by the provincial government just last week to try to coordinate the local response. He admits they are overwhelmed.

HAVAL AMEDI: Now the problem becoming more and more, it’s beyond the capacity of a small governorate to host all those people together to the here, because of the limitation of the resources.

MARGARET WARNER: He explained the waves of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing Islamic State extremists have doubled the population of his tiny province. But he said most Kurds had generous feelings toward the new arrivals.

HAVAL AMEDI: One day, each of us was a refugee or an IDP somewhere. And, mainly, they believe on helping the people. There are people who are hosting them, receiving them at the border, at the schools, at the public buildings and everything.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet no amount of aid or kindness is likely to heal the deep psychic wounds cut here.

Back at the camp, the man of the Hassan house, Walid Hassan, stopped us before we left. He had something to say.

WALID HASSAN (through interpreter): What was our fault? What wrong have we done? We are peaceful human beings. What is the fault of those kids who died? They have killed so many kids. They shot them in their heads. I want to deliver this letter to anyone who cares about humanity: Help us. Humanity in Iraq is just gone. Iraq has become the country of monsters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke to Margaret earlier this afternoon.

Margaret, thanks for joining us.

First of all, what’s the reaction of where you are in Irbil to the beheading of the American journalist James Foley?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, it is a big story here. It is leading a lot of media Web sites. President Obama’s remarks just now recently led the Web site, and it’s being interpreted or described as the president vowing to crush the Islamic State forces.

I, frankly, was surprised. I thought the attitude here would be, we have had thousands of our own people kill, one American killed, what’s the big deal? But not at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we just saw the report you did on the situation that the Iraqi minorities are facing. You have reported on many other refugee displaced populations. What’s different about the Yazidis and the Christians you have been speaking to there?

MARGARET WARNER: I think it’s the shock, the surprise at being suddenly uprooted from their lives, given 24 hours or less to clear out or be killed.

All refugees are traumatized, of course, Afghanistan, Pakistan, refugees I have talked to from Syria who’ve fled to Turkey and Lebanon. But the difference is that most of them made a collective decision or a family decision that the fighting had become too intense, they were being shelled by one side or the other, and they decided to flee together. And they could take things with them.

These people here feel to me as if — you know, completely shell-shocked at being individually targeted, hunted, really, because of their religion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Margaret, yesterday, we know the Iraqi army launched a new offensive to try to recapture the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State force, this just one day after the Mosul dam was retaken. They failed. They abandoned the fight. What are you hearing there as to why?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, the analysis here that there were two missing ingredients in the assault on Tikrit. One, of course, is coordination with American airstrikes. The retaking of the Mosul dam was a collective effort of Kurdish fighters, Iraqi army fighters and American airstrikes, very clearly targeted, strategically targeted out of a joint operations center up here in Irbil.

The second thing that was missing, Judy, was a cohesive Iraqi force. This time, the Iraqis were fighting entirely on their own. And according to a senior Kurdish military official here, it was a hodgepodge of regular Iraqi army and Shiite militia. He said they had great weapons, but they’re very poorly led by commanders who are appointed on sectarian grounds.

He said — and they were not really committed to the fight. And he said that — essentially, he described the same kind of Iraqi army that fled from Northern Iraq in June, when the Islamic State attacked Mosul and all these other outposts up here near the Kurdish region. And that’s a bad sign. If that’s true, that’s a bad sign for the test that President Obama has set for greater U.S. military involvement. That is that you have a cohesive and united — politically united and militarily united Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner reporting from Irbil, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Judy.