Today’s guest post is by Katie Harrison, Head of Media & Corporate Communications at Tearfund. Katie visited Iraq in August and experienced first-hand what many refugees there are going through. Katie tweets at @KatieHarrisonTF.
When news broke of David Haines’ abduction by the group calling themselves Islamic State, a particular kind of fear struck the hearts of everyone who has ever been an aid worker or who is close to one. Having just returned from Iraq, I found myself being asked lots of questions in media interviews and social conversations about our security protocols.
There have of course been far too many deaths already during this crisis in Iraq, most of them of people from Mosul, the Nineveh Plains and other areas where people have been beheaded, shot, tortured, raped, beaten, imprisoned, taken in slavery and forced to convert.
Every single death is one too many, and we grieve for all of them.
But there is something pernicious about the gratuitous flaunting of the imprisonments and then killings of Western journalists and aid workers. These are deliberately planned and carried out in order to gain maximum attention and to attract retaliation.
And attention is exactly what they’ve got.
Our Prime Minister said on Sunday: ‘we will hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice, no matter how long it takes’. Cameron’s commitment to ‘drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy ISIL’ is emphatic, although unclear.
We are yet to understand exactly how he intends to do this, although he has made some commitments to arm and train the Kurdish forces and to supply intelligence and logistics to assist US military action.
Whatever form our interventions eventually take, surely the death of David Haines reminds us of how important it is to protect the many people who are working hard to help those who are grieving, destitute and desperate.
Many thousands of local church members in the Kurdish region of Iraq are reaching out to people of all faiths who have had to flee the atrocities. Local and national community organisations are setting up support services to boost local infrastructure and help people feed their children and find a safe place to sleep.
And then there are organisations like Tearfund, who come in to assist local organisations to respond to a sudden crisis on this scale – where 1.8 million people have had to leave their homes since January, 600,000 of them in August alone.
The pressure that this sudden and intense displacement puts on local services is huge. Already, thousands of people are being helped but of course there are many more we can’t reach.
Our team in Iraq plan their travel between sites carefully, based on advice from security experts and daily (or sometimes more frequent) intelligence updates. One of our trips between cities took longer than it usually would because we insisted on avoiding the Kirkuk area. We were right to do so. Only days later 40 local people were reported to be kidnapped.
And there are particular risks for those of us who aren’t local. While in some countries, being an expat worker gives you an extra level of protection because people either understand that you’re there to help or they don’t want to face the huge fallout that would come from harming someone with a strong diplomatic foreign office, that’s not the case in Iraq.
This crisis is one where foreign faces are a prize, and if they can take and kill someone they believe to be a Western Christian they know they will get the attention and response they have with David Haines and James Foley.
So, given the urgent needs of those displaced from Mosul and the immense pressures on local infrastructure, Cameron must give an eye to the safety of British and other aid workers as he plans our military input.
We have seen from other recent crises, including Afghanistan, that a military strategy inevitably has an impact on the effectiveness of aid efforts. If local people believe that every Western person is pursuing a political agenda or may be spying on them, that will affect the way they interact with us.
But NGO workers aren’t armed, of course. Our purpose for being there is purely humanitarian, so we need a level of access and acceptance that will help us to go where the need is greatest.
It’s hard to do that when people confuse us with armed forces.
And so we face higher levels of risk, and daily threats.
It’s challenging and often frustrating to work in a conflict zone to tight security protocols. There are days, and sometimes weeks, when you can’t leave the base because it’s not safe outside.
You worry about the people you’re supposed to be assisting, especially when the security situation is so bad that local staff can’t reach them. Displaced or homeless people are even more vulnerable during a security incident, especially if they’re sleeping outdoors or going hungry.
There’s a strange blend of boredom and restlessness that kicks in, where you get sick of the sight of the same four walls but can’t quite settle down to work, read or sleep because you know you’ve got to be ready to run at any time if things kick off and you’re suddenly evacuated.
But it’s worth it, of course, because the aid we and our local staff and partners are able to deliver is the difference between life and death for many people.
‘They are not Muslims, they are monsters’
Brave words from Cameron. He publicly differentiated between peace-loving Muslims and the group calling themselves Islamic State.
Many British Muslims will be pleased about that. It’s something some of them have been asking for.
The Muslims I met in the Kurdish region of Iraq were very keen to make this point too. The local name for IS is Da’ash and everyone I met wanted me to know that they had nothing to do with them.
They fear Da’ash and all they stand for. Muslims were among those telling me with revulsion and disgust of the sex slave markets where women and girls are sold into slavery.
A crude version of their faith is used as an artifice of acceptability, as the woman sold as slaves are ‘married’ to their buyer. Muslims were keen to tell me that they didn’t know of any imam who would carry out such a ceremony, and to criticise the theological understanding of those who claimed this reflected Islamic teaching.
And there was as much horror at the thought of local men going off to join Da’ash for jihad as we would feel here in the UK if it were one of our neighbours. People would say ‘but he’s such a peaceful devout man with a lovely family, who goes to the mosque every week with the rest of us’ when someone went to join Da’ash.
Cameron is right to make this point. Just as it’s very hard for aid workers in Iraq and some other places, it must also be extremely difficult to feel completely comfortable while living peacefully as a Muslim here in the UK.