The Path that led to ISIS: A history of violence in Iraq

This is the text of an article I published in Contributoria earlier this year. It’s quite long, but I don’t think it’s too hard going and if you stick it out to the end then you’ll know more than most people about what’s going on in Iraq and where ISIS/IS/Daesh came from. At least their incarnation in that region.

He was buried deep in a cave in northern Iraq; laid out in his grave beside others of the clan. He had lived to around 40 years old, and arthritis had begun to set in. But it wasn’t old age that killed him. It was a spear to the ribs; a spear thrown from a distance, and crucially, a spear thrown by a man.

This was the fate of Shanidar 3, a Neanderthal who lived between 35-45,000 years ago in what is now northern Iraq, and who was killed by an early modern human – the only species to wield such a weapon.

Shanidar 3’s death may be the earliest evidence of human conflict in the Middle East, and in fact the world, but the root of today’s violence is to be found elsewhere entirely.

Who is to blame?

Since the US-led coalition invasion in 2003 it is estimated that 211,000 people have died in Iraq, and the body count has risen particularly sharply in the last two years.

Who is to blame for these deaths? Oil-thirsty Americans; A power-hungry dictator; Ruler-happy European imperialists; Islamic terrorists?

No, to find the root of today’s conflict in Iraq we first have to look even earlier than Shanidar 3’s death; back millions of years to the formation of two of the world’s most famous rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. As they began to flow in near-parallel from the highland plateaus of Turkey to the Persian Gulf a fertile plain stretched between them, nurtured by an ideal climate; the perfect conditions for mankind’s first experimentation with agriculture.

The birth of civilisation

Farming really began to take off in this area around 6,000BC. As humans needed to spend less time hunting and gathering, they had more time to spend building increasingly sophisticated dwellings. Then greater numbers of people began to settle in the same place. Societies, economies and religions developed, and in this way Ancient Mesopotamia gave birth to the world’s first civilisations.

And that’s when the trouble started. The streamlining and specialisation of roles in these new civilisations, and the comfort of a more regular food supply, freed up large groups of the men to dedicate all of their time to defending their territory; even to expand it. In other words it allowed ancient civilisations to go to war.

Map 1The land that is now called Iraq is relatively close to the outline that was once Ancient Mesopotamia. It is physically bounded by mountains to the north and east, the sea in the south, and a desert in the west. The outline of modern-day Iraq might look artificial, but if you map out the areas of Iraq that are actually populated, you’ll see that most major population centres fall pretty much within the bounds of Ancient Mesopotamia.

The main exception to this is the Kurds in the north, but for simplicity’s sake I won’t be covering the Kurdish question here. I’m just going to look at the origins of today’s violence in the main body of modern-day Iraq, and call it Mesopotamia.

The first conquests of Mesopotamia

Kingdoms centred around cities such as Babylon and Ur (between modern-day Baghdad and Basra) flourished for thousands of years, relatively unchallenged. As other civilisations grew up around the world, it became clear to them that not only was Mesopotamia rich in natural resources, but it was strategically placed in the corridor between Europe and Asia. Whoever controlled Mesopotamia controlled valuable trading routes.

The first violent takeover came in 1360BC, when the neighbouring Assyrian kings of the city of Ashur on the river Tigris began to conquer lands far beyond their own territory, including much of Mesopotamia. For the next two thousand years or so, Mesopotamia’s lands were conquered or re-conquered by most of the great civilisations of the time; Ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia and Rome; each one replacing the other violently.

The coming of Islam

In AD636 came a new wave, which changed Mesopotamia for good. Arabs of the recently established Islamic faith defeated the Sassanid Empire (then covering modern day Iran and Iraq) in a great battle and paved the way for the Islamic dynasty of the Abbasids, who ruled Mesopotamia between AD750 and 1258, establishing their capital in Baghdad.

Although there were conflicts and disputes during this period, it was on the whole more settled, and is known as the Golden Age of Islam, when Baghdad became one of the most important centres of learning and progress in the world.

The early days of Islam were unsettled and often violent, as conflict arose concerning who should succeed the Prophet Mohammed. The Shias believed that the leader of the Muslim community should be a blood relative of the prophet Mohammed, but the Sunnis believed that leaders should be chosen by the elite of the Muslim community. The Sunnis prevailed, but both sects lived side by side relatively peacefully for several centuries.

And then came the Mongols

Few people mention the Mongols when discussing the origins of conflict in Iraq, but their brutal treatment of Mesopotamia began a chain of events that led directly to today’s violence.

The 13th century Mongol invasions were more destructive than Saddam Hussein, the Iraq War, the insurgency and Islamic State put together. In just the first siege and ransacking of Baghdad in 1258 the army of Hulagu, grandson of Ghengis Khan, killed up to 1.6 million people in various gruesome ways and destroyed as much of the city’s cultural heritage and essential infrastructure as it could manage. They didn’t come to conquer, but to destroy.

For the next couple of centuries, Mesopotamia lay neglected at the furthest reach of the Mongolian empire. Any time it tried to pick itself up and rebuild, a fresh ransacking reduced it once more to rubble. From its origins as the first great civilisation and recent past as the centre of a prosperous and learned Islamic empire, Mesopotamia fast deteriorated into a social, economic and political mess.

Farmland fell into disuse as irrigation systems were destroyed, trading centres were avoided by other nations, and the people of Mesopotamia gradually retreated away from the cities and back to a more nomadic, rural and tribal way of life.

The ascent of minority Sunni rule

By the 16th century Mesopotamia was too weak to stand up for itself and became the frontier of a battle between the more powerful Ottoman and Persian Empires, with their seats of power in modern-day Turkey and Iran.

A key result of this slow motion battle, played out over 400 years or so, was that it deepened the divisions of the Sunni-Shia split in Mesopotamia. In the early 1500s, the Safavid dynasty was in control of the Persian Empire, and Shia Islam became the tie that bound its disparate elements together. In contrast, the Ottoman empire was staunchly Sunni, and sought to maintain Mesopotamia as a buffer zone to prevent the infection of its eastern provinces with Shi’ism.

For most of the 16th-19th centuries the Ottomans were successful in their domination of Mesopotamia, with only brief periods of Persian control. The Ottomans, like the Mongols before them, had little interest in a prosperous Iraq, and invested nothing in the territory, which continued as a poor, rural backwater.

For a relatively brief period from 1704 to 1831 however, the Mamluks, former slaves from Georgia, wrested control of Mesopotamia from the Ottomans and initiated a programme of reform and development. By the time the Ottomans took it back, Mesopotamia was beginning to find its feet, and the seeds of nationalism had been sown.

Regardless of any improvement in Mesopotamia’s general condition, both the Ottomans and the Mamluks were Sunni, so although the majority of Muslims in Iraq were Shia, both empires nurtured and promoted only a minority Sunni elite, fearful of giving any ground to Shi’ism and the Persians.

British Rule and the discovery of oil

The Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated between Britain and France in the midst of the first world war, was a treaty to decide which bits of the Ottoman Empire would belong to who, should they win the war (the Ottomans having thrown their lot in with the Germans). This led to some fairly arbitrary and unnaturally straight lines being drawn across much of the Middle East.

While many of these lines have caused decades of conflict, the territory of the new State of Iraq, under the mandate of the British, was actually little different from existing Mesopotamia (with the exception of the Kurds).

What really did mess the country up was that the British, lacking in money, energy and manpower after a debilitating four-year war, took the easy road and allowed the Sunni elite put in place by the Ottomans to remain largely in charge of the country.

Taking it one step even further, they made the new State of Iraq a monarchy, and appointed a king from the loyal Hashemite clan of Saudi Arabia. King Faisal I had never even set foot in Iraq when he became its monarch. Luckily he turned out to be a thoughtful and fair leader, and throughout his 12 year reign he worked hard to foster better relations between the Sunni and Shia Muslims of Iraq.

King Faisal I promotion of the Pan-Arab movement annoyed the British, whose puppet he was supposed to be. Furthermore it was largely due to his efforts that Iraq obtained nominal self-rule in 1932.

Military coups galore

In 1933 King Faisal I died on a trip to Switzerland (in rather fishy circumstances) and his son Ghazi took the throne at the age of just 21. In contrast to his father, Ghazi was an ineffectual and reckless leader, who played the army and the civilian government against each other in a bid to gain more control over the country.

This led, inevitably, to Iraq’s first military coup in 1936, ushering in a period of great instability in which there were six more coup attempts in five years. King Ghazi died young in 1939, and as his four year old son was too young to rule alone, his uncle Abd Al-Ilah became regent.

Since the late 1920s, the British had been looking for a way to extend their influence over Iraq beyond the end of the Mandate and get their hands on the oil reserves in Kirkuk. Abd Al-Ilah was their best chance for years. He was far more sympathetic to British involvement in the country, seeing them as his best chance to stay in power. To that end, he stamped good and hard on the growing Arab Nationalist movement in Iraq, and on the army in general.

One section of the army he reserved particular disdain for was a group of officers from the poor tribes of Tikrit and its surrounding area. Despite being Sunnis, he regarded them as social upstarts; thieves and beggars who deserved no position of any power.

These officers formed the core of the Arab Nationalist movement, which in the early 1950s gained momentum, culminating in a coup by General Abd Al-Karim Kasim in 1958. This was the real end of British influence in Iraq. Kasim was a dedicated anti-imperialist and socialist, and under his rule the newly formed and non-aligned Republic of Iraq drifted away from Europe and towards alliances with communist countries.

Let’s take stock of where Iraq is in the early 1960s: Mongol devastation leaves a formerly ascendant country at the mercy of surrounding empires for several centuries, each exploiting the population and resources for their own ends; Sunni and Shia differences are exacerbated and the former now have disproportionate influence over the country’s majority Shia. A disenchanted section of the army, Sunni but not elite, grow more and more angry with the status quo and finally burst upon the political scene. They retake Iraq for ordinary Arabs, and start the process of uniting Arab socialist movements across the Middle East. The future holds a glimmer of hope for the people of Mesopotamia.

The rise of Saddam

Within General Kasim’s inner circle was a young, talented and ambitious officer from Tikrit called Saddam Hussein. His uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, with whom he lived after being humiliated, beaten and thrown out of home by his step-father, was a hate-filled man (in the 1980s he wrote a book called ’Three whom God should not have created: Persians, Jews and Flies) and he filled young Saddam’s head with many enemies, chief amongst them the British.

Young Saddam had joined the nascent Ba’ath Party with a strong belief in its aim to unite the Arab world and bring it together under socialist, secular principles, and he worked with Iraq’s first presidents to promote these ideals (while keeping a close eye on his own political promotion).

He began well. In his role as vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council he instituted social reforms from the late 1960s to 1970s that made Iraq’s education and health systems the envy of the Middle East. He modernised Iraq’s economy, wrested control of its oil back from international companies, and directed that revenue flow back to the people of Iraq. He also created a strong security aparatus which would stabilise the government and prevent more coups.

Actually it was this last step which, although in pursuit of an ideal, ultimately became the tool with which Saddam terrorised and divided Iraq.

It’s hard to say when or why Saddam Hussein began his descent into dictatorship, and when the good that he did began to be so completely outweighed by his relentless crushing of individual freedom. Certainly by the time he assumed formal control of Iraq as President in 1979, he was was already far along that path. His devotion to the cause of socialism and Arab Nationalism fell into the background as he became consumed extreme paranoia and a maniacal desire to retain power.

The brutality of Saddam’s rule is legendary. His strategy was a simple one of total control, and divide and rule. Although the Ba’ath Party was secular, Saddam was from a Sunni tribe, and he promoted only those from his tribe (and mostly his family) to positions of any power. This further fuelled the frustration of Iraq’s majority Shia, and substantial Kurdish population. He also pursued a rather pointless and destructive war with Iran for most of the 1980s, nearly bankrupting the Iraqi economy and damaging many of his earlier social and economic developments.

The Iraq War

Skip forward to 2003, and the US + others invasion of Iraq. Whatever the reasons behind the invasion (oil), the US had clearly not done their homework on the country’s history, and after victory, immediately set about dismantling the government under the crowd-pleasing title of de-Ba’athification; an unsubtle echo of de-Nazification.

Had they looked into it a little, the US administration would have discovered that a) the Ba’ath Party did not have a fundamentally bad philosophy (unlike the Nazi Party), it was just misused. b) Saddam was basically the only person with any real power, and most of the Ba’ath Party card carriers keeping the country running were just minions. c) Most of these minions were not die-hard Saddam supporters but had early on been given a choice between employment and Ba’ath Party membership vs. unemployment and often death. d) The Shia who had been downtrodden by successive Sunni rulers for the best part of 600 years were probably going to be up for a bit of revenge.

And so it was that Iraq found itself with Nuri Al-Maliki in power in 2006. Under Maliki, the worse-case scenario in the minds of anybody who understood anything about Iraqi history, happened.

Iran, keen to humiliate their arch-enemy the Americans, whispered in Maliki’s ear that the US never meant to leave, and sent troops to train Shia militia to drive them out Iraq’s new would-be colonisers. Under Iran’s cunning and America’s mishandling, all of Iraq’s long-festering problems were dragged into the open and poked with a very big stick.

Iraq’s first Shia despot

Maliki was a weak and unprincipled leader, lurching from one decision to another without any thought to a long term strategy. Amidst the chaos of the Shia militias and Sunni insurgency, he developed a taste for authoritarianism. When the US military withdrew most of its forces from Iraq in 2010, Maliki had it within his power to begin a path towards reconciliation. Instead he turned his back on it and chose revenge.

From de-Ba’athification in 2003 to the end of Maliki’s Prime Ministership in 2014, Iraq’s Sunni’s were not only kept out of power, but their communities were relentlessly persecuted. Regular assassinations of low-level Sunni leaders avoided the negative international publicity that came with the Sunni suicide bombings, but were nonetheless powerful. Shia militia harassed and patrolled many Sunni areas, taking over the role of the police or army. In Mosul there were ‘Maliki death squads’ who patrolled the streets, enforcing curfews and performing instant executions of people who failed to follow their rules to the letter.

Last year I met a Kurd who had lived all of his life in Mosul. He told me that the eight years of Maliki’s rule had made life unbearable. Citizens lived in constant fear and had no freedom. Maliki’s militia had so much control that if you so much as turned your light on in the night to go to the bathroom, they would knock on your front door to see what you were up to.

As these militia consolidated Maliki’s power, the army fell by the wayside and succumbed to corruption. By 2014 it was estimated that in some squadrons, only one third of the quantity of soldiers on the official register actually existed. The rest were made up and their wages collected by the officers.

Iraq is now in a state of civil war

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that when the self-proclaimed Islamic State marched into Mosul and much of Western Iraq, they appeared to local people not as oppressive attackers, but as liberators of an oppressed minority. And the long-neglected and virtually hollow Iraqi army instantly crumbled.

And this is where so many have got it wrong when searching for the origins of ISIS. The focus on them as a terrorist group with immense power and skill gives them too much credit. They are an opportunistic and well-organised group who rode the wave of ethnic tension into Iraq and ignited a civil war that had been rumbling unrecognised for several years.

To end the violence in Iraq, the focus cannot be to defeat ISIS. The seeds of this conflict are rooted as far back as the agricultural revolution, when Mesopotamia’s natural resources began to make it so desirable. Ever since then it has remained one of the most valuable territories in the world in terms of resources and strategic significance, which will always be vulnerable to exploitation.

The only way forward is to work towards an inclusive government under a strong but fair leader. With no reason to fight, ISIS’s support base in Iraq would melt away as quickly as it came. As my friend from Mosul said; people are starting to realise that ISIS might be as bad as Maliki. It wouldn’t take much support for them to turn their allegiance back to their country.


Empathy Without Borders

I felt moved to write this post after several days of observing social media, conventional media and political responses to the terror attacks in Paris on Friday 13th November.

I am currently in the U.S. and have witnessed a surprisingly large outpouring of grief and shock for events in what I thought was considered a far-off European country. Half of my family and many of my friends are French and live in Paris, and I have spent a lot of time there. I was shocked and saddened by attacks, and I will admit a little scared. But the scale of the reaction here in New York has far eclipsed that of mine or my family’s.

Some have responded to this outpouring of support and sadness by condemning it; you’re not allowed to express outrage about Paris if you don’t express it about Beirut or Baghdad.  I don’t agree with those who attack expressions of pain, solidarity and compassion, but I will admit that something about the scale of the response has made me sad, and it’s taken a few days to explore why in my own mind.

Last night I read this post which condemned the backlash against condolences with Paris. I agree that it is wrong to tell people that they shouldn’t feel shocked or sad by events, but I do believe that it’s valid  to raise the fact that similar events are happening all over the world and deserve equal attention and attempts at empathy.

This time last year I was throwing all my time and effort into raising money for the hundreds of thousands of Yezidis who were displaced by IS/Daesh in some of their earliest and most brutal attacks. Those who escaped murder or kidnap were facing death from exposure as winter drew closer in the formal and informal refugee camps of the cold, Kurdish north. It was a real battle to raise money for them, even though all we were asking for was $10 to buy a blanket for a family that could save the life of its youngest and most vulnerable members. All donations were to go directly to blankets, with my husband and I paying the charity’s overheads for the project.

While some of my friends and contacts reacted with great generosity towards and empathy with the plight of these victims, many ignored it. Raising money for victims in Iraq was not at all popular, especially in the U.S: I felt that people just saw the country as a mess that no outside help could deal with. I found it very hard to engage peoples’ support in spite of (or perhaps because of) our (British, U.S. and others) involvement in creating the conditions for such attacks to happen. You can read more about all of this in my previous posts if you’re interested, but my point is that it was very hard to get people in the West to empathise with innocent victims in a country they had not visited and didn’t understand, no matter how hard I tried to explain the issues in clear and simple ways: The Yezidis were peaceful people living straightforward lives and did nothing to provoke IS attacks other than not be muslims. But nobody knew who they were, so the support never came.

In my mind, having visited the camps, spoken to Yezidis, and feeling close to the people and land of Iraq and Kurdistan, those I was trying to help were no different to those who were attacked in Paris. I’m not saying that from my high horse – I’m saying that it was easy for me, having met these  people face to face, to feel as much compassion for them as I feel for the French people. So I completely agree with those who say that it’s easier to empathise with people and places that you can identify with or are familiar with. But I also think that there’s a moral responsibility to move beyond that immediate impulse and try to understand and show support and compassion for tragedies in places more foreign to us. Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – comes more easily to some, but it’s not simply an innate, inflexible personality attribute – it can be nurtured and developed.

My main argument for working on our capacity for empathy is that some of the greatest and most prolonged atrocities in history were permitted because ordinary people refused to empathise with those who were different; slavery, apartheid, the holocaust, segregation and discrimination in the U.S. We would all like to believe that if we were alive and present during those times, we would have been amongst the minority who fought against such gross injustices rather than tacitly or actively taking part in them. And yet as global atrocities and injustices are perpetrated around the world today, we are nearly all succumbing to what Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called the ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ field. We say that we are too busy, or we don’t want to be depressed, or there’s nothing we can do to help, or we have nothing to do with these people – it’s somebody else’s problem.

And this brings me to my second argument for cross-border empathy. The global nature of our existence today means that we are far more interconnected. Through our vastly increased levels of consumption, our daily actions impact the lives of people all around the world. We have to be more aware of this. How can we ignore a factory collapse killing hundreds of innocent child workers in a far-off country when its our demand for cheap clothing that put them there in the first place? Or how about our oil-guzzling that has fuelled some of this century’s worst conflicts, including a war that caused instability in Iraq and the rise of IS/Daesh? Right now a global environmental, humanitarian and wildlife protection catastrophe is taking place in Indonesia, with its fires fuelled by palm oil plantations. It barely registers in the media and yet every one of us consuming palm oil in our daily lives holds a degree of responsibility for this.

The blog I referred to at the start implied that people’s feelings of sorrow were tied irrevocably to their ethnic/geographical/cultural identities. I don’t agree. I think that people are entirely capable of empathising more widely, as there are always aspects about other fellow humans with which we can identify. What is needed is a skilled and truly objective media to assist this, and we are nowhere near that. One positive example is Humans of New York. On their Facebook page I saw hundreds of thousands of people inspired to raise money for a woman who defended poor labourers in Pakistan after Brandon Stanton highlighted her work, where in the weeks before they were empathising with a homeless person on the streets of New York. Brandon’s work is helping people to go beyond their instinctive tribalism and focus on what we can all identify with in other people. And it doesn’t take much – just a photograph and a couple of paragraphs of words.

It can seem difficult, time-consuming and depressing to get caught up in all the world’s tragedies, and none of us are capable of having zero negative impact on the world, or to solve all its problems. But I think that it is possible, and more than that it is vital, for us to make more of an effort to show compassion and/or material support for at least some situations beyond our empathy comfort zone.

It doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many fantastic writers and campaigners out there who can help guide us on how to make a difference: Whether it’s to stop using a certain product and informing the manufacturer of why, or writing a letter to an MP, or signing a petition, or sharing an article on social media, the slightest actions can have big collective impact.

When I was trying to raise money to buy blankets for the Yezidi refugees, I met with a member of the British Government’s Department for International Development in Iraq. He told me that despite having earmarked several million pounds for the area, they couldn’t/wouldn’t give money to help refugees in the Kurdish region at that point because the media weren’t making enough of a fuss about it to persuade the politicians to support it – everybody was more worried about Ebola and there was public fatigue over Iraq. The money was there but he couldn’t use it until more British people showed that they cared what happened to the Yezidi refugees. Media, politicians, companies and charities all respond to the public, and that public is you. You might have more power than you think.

That, in a rather extended nutshell, is why I think that it’s important to make an effort to extend our empathy to those who may not immediately find it easy to identify with, but who need our support. There is always a way to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

If you were outraged by what happened in Paris and it made you want to help other innocent victims of IS/Daesh, one suggestion I have is to donate to the Rise Foundation winter campaign for Iraqi orphans.

From Brutality to Beauty: Syrian Children Take on the International Art World

I recently had the following article published on Contributoria. Here it is again, with more photos!

Ola portrait

Syrian refugee Ola, paintbrush in hand. Photograph by Lucy Tyndall

Ola is strong-willed and smart. She’s usually the first of her friendship group to dive into the painting tent and organise all the others: mixing paint to perfect colours and bossing everybody around. To her teacher Lucy she’s a sweet, talented all-rounder who’s always at the heart of the action. But today she’s just not herself. She stays apart from the others, head drooping and little interest in the painting. Lucy is worried and elicits Lilian’s help in finding out what is wrong. Lilian comes back some time later and says that Ola is sad because she’s remembering her two brothers who died recently in a terrible accident.

Lucy Tyndall is the project manager of the pioneering Castle Art project at the Rise Foundation, a small NGO based in the Kurdish region of Iraq, Lilian is one of her local volunteer helpers and Ola is a young Syrian refugee. Every Friday morning, Tyndall and a handful of local and international volunteers pile into an old transit van at Rise Foundation’s base in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, and drive two hours through picturesque but barren plains and mountains to reach the small town of Akre.

Changing brutality to beauty

An otherwise unremarkable settlement, Akre became synonymous with terror when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the building of an imposing prison in the design of a castle, set prominently on a hill in the centre of the town. Built in the heartland of a region fighting against the dictator’s rule, the prison was designed for the detention and torture of political prisoners: a warning to all rebellious Kurds nearby.

When refugees from the Syrian civil war began to flow into the Kurdish region in greater numbers, Akre prison was turned into a refugee camp. It now houses around 1,400 people in its former cells, administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government and fed by the World Food Programme.

When Tom Robinson, director and co-founder of Rise Foundation, visited Akre with his team in early 2014 to help set up and stock a library at the camp, he found the atmosphere “so grim — it was not a nice place to be living in, with all the memories of a former totalitarian regime.” He and team member Nils Henrik came up with the idea of brightening the prison with the help of the camp’s younger refugees by painting murals on the walls. In October 2014 they brought in a new project manager, Tyndall, a former policy advisor to the New Zealand government with a passion for art that she has nurtured since her own school days.

Translating trauma into hope

The early days of the project were tough. The Rise team couldn’t communicate directly with the children until they found people to interpret for them. One of these was Kawther Ahmed. A refugee living in Akre herself, Kawther helps to run the UNICEF school in the camp and every Friday Rise Foundation employs her to help organise the group of around 25 children, mostly girls aged 10–14, who are the core of the Castle Art project.
Early on the children were given pieces of paper to draw what they wanted, in the hope that these could form the basis for murals. Fresh from war zones, however, most of the children’s first pictures were scenes of terrible violence.

“We are not professional art therapists,” says Robinson, “so we couldn’t delve into their trauma in this way.”Neither were they suitable for murals whose purpose was to brighten up the camp.

Photograph by Lucy Tyndall

Now, Tyndall works with the children to translate their pictures into something that retains their power and meaning, but gives hope and brightness to the community. “One day Hindreen came to me with a drawing of a bird crying in a cage,” says Tyndall. “We worked on it together and the final painting on the wall was of a cage with the door open and a bird flying out.”

In this way, Tyndall allows the children and the camp community to drive the direction of the project. “It’s important to give them a sense of ownership and control,” she says. “That gives them hope for the future and takes away some of their powerlessness.”

I ask Tyndall how she deals with it if children bring up traumatic experiences from the war. “I give them a hug and put a paintbrush in their hand. All I can do is to give them the means to process it themselves.”

One day Najar, one of Castle Art’s most promising students, came to Tyndall with a drawing depicting an explosion of music. “She told me that it was a heart exploding with all the things that can’t be expressed. She said that when she puts the paintbrush to the wall, she can say the things that she can’t say out loud.”

From art project to art programme

The remarkable thing about Castle Art, however, is that it hasn’t limited itself to being a one-off painting project, a bit of fun for underprivileged children. Tyndall has approached this as a sophisticated art programme that produces potent art works in a unique setting.
“I emailed my old art teacher the other day,” says Tyndall. “I wanted to thank her for the amazing education that I got, which inspired me to make art a part of my life. When I work with these girls, when I see their talent and desire, I just keep thinking that they should have been beside me in school. They should have been getting the same chances and same education as me. What I’m doing here is thinking back to what I was taught, and trying to pass that on.”
Tyndall has taken her cue from the ambition of the children in the group. “They all want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers,” she says. “There are some very talented and driven individuals and I want to show them what they are capable of.”Each week Tyndall gives the students a project to work on during the week, usually with artist models.
“When I was at school we were given examples of artists’ work. The idea is that you first emulate their style, then you appropriate it, taking from it what means something to you and developing your own style” said Tyndall. “One week we looked at the work of Pablo Delgado. We cut out pictures of tiny scenes and pasted them around the camp walls. We had a cutout of a tiny man flying away with this umbrella next to an air conditioning unit and little birds sitting on cracks in the wall.”

Working with Pablo Delgado as inspiration. Photograph by Rise Foundation

Bringing in Banksy… fun, spray paint and irreverence

Recently, Tyndall has begun to focus more on street art with the girls, and has introduced spray painting and stencilling. Apart from having so much fun with the spray paint that only some of it ends up on the walls, Tyndall wants the children to connect with the wider background of the genre, rooted in irreverence, regeneration, beautification and rebellion.

Akre prison is a symbol of historical repression and torture: a prison now filled with victims, who are trapped there simply because they can’t go home. “It reminds me of the Berlin Wall,” says Tyndall. “I want to give the children ways of punching through the walls of their prison and retaking some control over their lives.”

Akre prison, where the refugees live. Photograph by Amy McTighe.

It is also a huge canvas with plenty of potential to create for dramatic images. With its cracked, decaying walls and dark history, Tyndall believes that Akre prison is perfect for street art, both politically and aesthetically. “I believe that this is one of the most special art spaces in the world,” she says.

One of the most famous artist models she brought them recently was Banksy. She showed the children a picture of the artist’s work on a controversial separation wall in Gaza. The image was of two children with bucket and spade looking through a crack in the wall to a tropical beach beyond. In response one of her students, Newruz, drew bars across a crack in the wall of Akre. Out of the bars reached a pair of arms, as a bird flew away.
Tyndall often selects artist models because of their background. Stik, for example, is a street artist from the UK who experienced a long period of homelessness and used art to give him a sense of purpose and focus that helped him get his life back together. His stark stick figures suit the canvas of Akre prison, and are accessible for the children to emulate, but his story can also inspire them.

Photograph by Rise Foundation

The endless battle for funding

Tyndall’s passion for the project is reflected in the children. “One of the kids told me she was always so excited about Friday afternoons that she can’t eat lunch that day.” But with so little funding she doesn’t know how long the project can continue.“
When the car bomb went off 200 metres from our house in Erbil last week, my first thought was that I hadn’t left enough paint for the children to continue by themselves if I had to leave the country,” says Tyndall.
Rise Foundation is a small NGO and faces a constant battle to raise money for its projects. “From month to month it’s unclear whether I will be able to support not only the refugees we work with, but my own staff,” says Robinson.
He sees their small size as an asset. “It enables us to react quickly and flexibly, unencumbered by some of the bureaucracy that slows down larger organisations.” But he does wish that they had a steadier stream of income.The current budget of the Castle Art project is around $800–1,000 a month — mostly salaries for the artist and coordinator Rise employs from within the camp.

I ask Tyndall what she would do if somebody gave her $10,000 to spend on the project. After a bit of incredulous laughter she begins to fire off her wish list.

Photograph by Rise Foundation

“I could buy paint for a year. No, wait, three years… I could buy them so much paint. I want to give them a huge paint reserve, so that they can carry on if we have to leave.”

Then I asked what she would do with $500,000. This time she hit her stride. “I want to bring artists from the region and the world to work with the kids and employ more local artists to help them regularly. I want to spread the project to other camps. I want the children’s work and story to be featured in a gallery exhibition in the West. Hell, I want to take the children to be at their exhibition!”

Tyndall explains that the children very rarely leave the prison and that when they take them on occasional picnics in the surrounding area “they’re beside themselves, running around, jumping across streams and just playing like normal kids do. Can you imagine if I could take them to London? To see their own work on the wall and all these people looking at their work?”

Connecting the children with the world through art

Tyndall is very keen to connect the children with the international art scene. She sees this as a way of keeping their situation in the minds of the world. She wants to show not only their talent, but their humanity and individuality.

Diana’s work inspired by Ricardo Cavolo, which shows her hopes and dreams ‘tattooed’ on an outline of her head. The stairs on the neck represent the number of years before Diana can finish school and become an engineer. Photograph by Lucy Tyndall.

“These children are a wasted generation if their talents and humanity aren’t nurtured. They have the passion and drive to fix their own country. They never talk about fighting; they want to be pharmacists, artists, lawyers, doctors, engineers. All they want to do is go home.”

When Tyndall asked Newruz what she would do to rebuild Syria, she replied that she would paint all the walls of Damascus.

This strategy of engagement has had some success. One student, Diana, drew a picture of a heart with a flame shooting out of it. It was so like the work of Spanish artist Ricardo Cavolo that Tyndall gave her more of his work to explore. Then she tweeted the results directly to Cavolo, who responded enthusiastically.

Tyndall’s hope is that she can persuade more artists around the world to engage with the children and perhaps even to visit and work with them in Akre. She also hopes that their art work will give them a voice in a world that otherwise ignores them.

With the gradual drift of Europe towards the right, it has become acceptable for immigrants to bear the brunt of people’s frustration. In a continent that had the greatest displacement of people in the 20th century because of conflict and persecution, it has become acceptable to refer to this new wave of refugees as sub-human, vermin.
In this new narrative, Ola is a cockroach. Violence in Syria drove her family from their home and country. Her parents chose to try to get to Europe illegally, hoping to find somewhere safe to live and the opportunity for their children to make something of themselves. As they crossed the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat there was a terrible accident and two of Ola’s brothers, aged 13 and 15, drowned.
The rest of the family were forced to turn back and seek sanctuary in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Now they live in a dark, damp, oppressive prison, where the only respite from the monotony of virtual captivity and the ghosts of the prison’s brutal past, are the splashes of colour and ideas that Tyndall and her team bring into their lives.

 For three hours a week Ola’s passion and talent soar, and through her art she speaks to her community and to the world. Perhaps it’s only through her painting that the world can start to see her not as a feral human, or vermin, but as a child.

Find out more about the Castle Art Project by visiting their blog or emailing info@rise-foundation.

Photograph by Rise Foundation


Update: This year Rise Foundation have broadened their winter appeal. They are now distributing a wider range of winter survival goods, and are focussing on Iraqi orphans

Mariam I met Mariam in Khanki camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was hiding behind a tent, scared of the crowds of other children fighting for boxes of toys being distributed by an American charity. Her expression, her eyes, were compelling and I took picture after picture of her. As I went for a wander around the camp, Mariam took my hand and came with me. When I prised her fingers off to use my camera, she put her arm around my waist.

Mariam's younger brother - a cheeky, trouble-making toddler who is always getting into scrapes.

Mariam’s younger brother – a cheeky, attention-seeking toddler who is always getting into scrapes.

Mariam took me to her family’s tent and I met her mother, father, several siblings and a few indeterminate relatives. I sat on a thin mattress on the bare floor of the tent as they gave me sweet, black tea brewed on a simple cooking stove.Mariam’s family, along with everybody in this particular camp, are Yezidi. On 3rd August this year, her family woke to the terrifying sound of Daesh (ISIS) entering their village. Mariam’s parents grabbed their children and fled to nearby Mount Sinjar. For six days, Mariam and tens of thousands of others cowered on the barren mountain, shivering through the cold of the night and sheltering from the fierce desert sun in the day. When their bag of rice finally ran out, Mariam’s father made the hard choice to face Daesh rather than starvation.

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Khanki in the dry.

With hundreds of other families, they made the run from Mount Sinjar, jumping over dead bodies and praying that the Daesh bullets would miss their mark. With the assistance of Syrian Kurdish fighters, they made it to the border of Syria, and from there, to the north and into Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Mobile phone footage of Khanki Camp after a day of rain. It has since been raining for a week.

They now share a tent in the informal part of Khanki refugee camp, just north of the Mosul Dam. This camp shelters over 120,000 Yezidis, but for those outside of the official camp (over half), there is little in the way of drainage or other essential infrastructure and I’ve just heard that with this week’s heavy rains, the worst since 1992, many tents have been washed away. Before the rains, I went back to Khanki and visited Mariam and her family for a second time. The sores on her face were worse – I’m told there’s an infection running untreated through all of the children in the camp.

Mariam's little sister. A sweet, shy girl who huddled up to me in the tent and kept kissing my hand.

Mariam’s little sister. A sweet, shy girl who huddled up to me in the tent and kept kissing my hand.

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Mariam’s gentle, responsible older brother

This time her father told me that he was terrified of winter. The family arrived with only the clothes they stood up in and have no blankets, winter clothes or stoves to keep them warm – only a small cooking stove and some thin mattresses, which they bought with the little money they had, or were donated by the few small charities visiting the camp. He told me that he also worried about the children’s mental wellbeing. He wondered how a child who had had to run through fields strewn with corpses and body parts could move on from that.

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Mariam’s family

Mariam’s father seemed to be a kind and intelligent man and I believe that he will do his best to support his children’s psychological wellbeing, but I don’t know how he and the hundreds of thousands of other people displaced by conflict in this region will keep their families from great suffering this winter. In between my two visits to Mariam and her family I spent time in the far north of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where I walked the path along which Kurds fled Saddam Hussein’s chemical bombs in 1988. On the way, in the highest of the mountains on the border of Turkey, my hosts showed me a small area on a rocky outcrop, where upended rocks marked the graves of children who died of exposure on the cold mountain nights of this exodus. My deep fear, having visited people in Khanki camp and some of the 820,000 other displaced people living rough in Dohuk province, one of the coldest areas of Kurdistan, is that history will repeat itself this winter, and on a much larger scale.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

Children whose tent washed away, sheltering under a single blanket. Photo by a camp resident.

The TV cameras have left Iraq in pursuit of Ebola right now, and it is unlikely they will return to the humanitarian situation here until people begin to die in significant numbers. I’m not prepared to wait for that to happen and so have partnered with the excellent charity Rise Foundation on a campaign to buy blankets.

Displaced people here need much more than just a blanket, but it is beyond our capacity to tackle the whole humanitarian disaster unfolding, and we feel that a blanket is the cheapest way that we can get warmth to the maximum amount of people. This is not just our assessment – blankets are also the number one item requested by both displaced people, and the authorities in the region. Blankets are also the safest way to keep people warm in tents. On 20th October, three children burned to death in Khanki camp when their tent caught fire after their parents tried to keep them warm. Rise Foundation are enthusiastic, fast-moving and efficient. They have guaranteed that none of the money you give to the #buyablanket campaign will go on the charity’s overheads, which are covered by a sponsor. This means that every $16 you give will buy a blanket which is big enough and thick enough to help keep at least two vulnerable people warm in winter.

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The back of one of the disused buildings holding several hundred families. They have only two toilets between them and there are pools of green, stagnant water around which children play.

If we can buy 100,000 blankets, we can make a real impact on the 820,000 living rough this winter in Iraqi Kurdistan, whatever their religion or ethnicity. Rise-buyablanket-POSTER-LOW

Festival of Sacrifice

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Muslim pilgrims on the Hajj circle the Kaaba in Mecca.

On the evening of the 10th day of the last month of the Islamic year (Dhu Al-Hijja), Muslims begin a two day celebration known as Eid Al-Adha – Festival of the Sacrifice. This marks the end of the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage of Muslims around the world to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Eid Al-Adha celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God’s command. The Old Testament story tells that God intervened at the last minute to save Ishmael, and gave Abraham (known as Ibrahim in Islam) a lamb to sacrifice instead.

On the first evening of Eid, Muslim families traditionally slaughter an animal and prepare a feast for the following day. On the main day of celebrations, they travel around their community visiting each other and receiving hospitality and food.

This year, celebrations in Iraqi Kurdistan were muted. Much like Christmas in the West, shops in the run-up to Eid would normally do a roaring trade in sweets, gifts and clothes. This week, however, traders in the Souq were wheeling around wooden carts still heavily laden with sweets, complaining that nobody was coming to buy them. Not only is the economic hardship, caused by a financial dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, hitting people hard (most government employees have not been paid in months), but the current conflict with Daesh (ISIS) casts a heavy shadow over the region. Few felt like celebrating.

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

Funeral of a Peshmerga solider, one of dozens killed in recent battles with Daesh (ISIS).

I spent Eid in Dohuk – one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces, and the one hit hardest by the influx of refugees from the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in Iraq. My host family put on traditional clothes and kept a basket of sweets for children going door to door, but otherwise spent the day in muted relaxation; far from their usual programme of non-stop guests, all-day tea-boiling and gastronomic over-indulgence.

“This is no time for celebration. Every family knows somebody who has lost a relative fighting Da’esh. How can we celebrate, with such unhappiness everywhere?”

The Battle for Shingar

The main problems with press coverage of the fight with Daesh (ISIS) in the north of Iraq are the absence of decent maps (the BBC one is just plain wrong) and the western press’s general lack of understanding of the strategic and geographical issues in play (with some notable exceptions – see further reading below). Here’s a very basic outline to help explain.KRG map

Where is Kurdistan? The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is an autonomous region of northern Iraq. It has its own parliament, army (Peshmerga) and domestic security force (Asayish). Then there are the areas outside of their borders where the population are mostly Kurds, but they do not come under KRG administration. These are often known as the Disputed Territories.

Why the dispute? This strip of land contains many billion barrels of oil beneath its surface, which both the central Iraqi government and the KRG would like the profits of. For the KRG however, it runs deeper – control of Mosul, Kirkuk and the areas around them would allow the KRG to look after their fellow Kurds.

Why do Daesh want this area? Primarily oil. Selling oil on the black market brings in millions of dollars a day, allowing them to recruit, fight and function like a state army.

But why Sinjar in particular? Sinjar, or as the Kurds call it, Shingar, is actually a region as well as a town. West of Mosul, it helps Daesh to shore up the link between Syria and areas of more solid Sunni Arab support. It also gives them access to Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul.

Shingar is also the homeland of the Yezidis, who are a religious minority persecuted by Daesh for their beliefs. When Shingar fell to Daesh, many Yezidis fled to Syria or Erbil, but geography forced some of them up Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for many days. This is inhospitable terrain, especially in the height of summer, and those trapped on the mountain suffer greatly.

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Graphic from the Washington Post. A little confusing as it’s the view from the West, but helps to understand the terrain. The red line at the bottom is the border with Syria.

Military Strategy In the battle for Shingar, there are several strategically important towns; Zumar (Zummar), Sinjar (Sincar, Shingar) and Rabi’a (Rabia). Whoever controls these, controls access to the whole area.

Interactive Daesh map

Excellent New York Times map.

Fierce fighting continues in Rabi’a and Zumar and control changes regularly. The Peshmerga sustained significant casualties in the battles for these towns but today have regained control of Rabi’a. It is expected that they will progress to Shingar soon.

On a lighter note, Zagros TV just showed Peshmerga delightedly holding up fake beards they had taken off Daesh fighters killed in the battle for Rabi’a.

Further references This New York Times interactive graphic is about the best and most accurate map I’ve come across, and although it’s from 2009, descriptions of the ethnic, strategic and political issues are pretty spot on. This Al Jazeera video gives you an impression of the battle around Zumar. This Washington Post series of graphics illustrates things from the perspective of US air strikes.

Silva and Abdulrahman

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Silva is a beautiful, seven year old Syrian Kurdish girl with bobbed hair and dark brown eyes. She is tall for her age and but stands listlessly holding her father’s hand, avoiding our eyes and uninterested in the other children around her. “She is sick”, says Abdulrahman. “I am on my own. I can’t find work because I have to look after her all day.” My friend and I were in the middle of a children’s art project so he invited us to his room to talk later. “Go to the back of the camp and then up the stairs – you’ll find us in the darkest corner.”

They are in their underwear when we arrive – struggling with the midday heat in their tiny room on the roof of the fortress of Akre. For decades a feared and brutal prison, Akre’s bare cells have been converted into rooms for Syrian refugees. Silva and Abdulrahman are only two, so they take the smallest one; around 3m x 4m, built to house a water tank or generator on the roof of the prison. It has bare concrete walls and an ill-fitting metal door that does little to keep out the smell of the communal toilet set up in the stairwell below. Silva 9 Abdulrahman pulls on a dijdasha and then dresses his daughter, gently smoothing her hair back with clips. He divorced his wife three years ago and since then he and Silva have been on their own. As we sit on the floor and talk, she grabs my moleskin notebook and sniffs it intently, stroking the cover and then suddenly grits her teeth and twists, crumples and rips it until her father snatches it back. She crawls around me, snaking her arms through mine until she gets to the notebook again. Then a cartoon comes on the TV and she jumps up, bouncing and laughing to the music. “She loves music and dancing”. Silva 7 According to her medical notes, Silva has “autism spectrum disorder with severe social and academic impairment. She needs continuous social support, with management in specialised centres.” Instead she lives on the roof of a prison with only her father to dress her, calm her when she gets upset, change the nappies that she still has to wear, and feed her. Silva 3Abdulrahman pleaded with us to get his daughter to a country where she could receive specialist care. They abandoned their home in Kurdish north-west Syria earlier earlier this year, as Daesh (IS) closed in, and fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. All of their relatives had been split up and ended up in different regions and countries. Now his money was running out, he said, because he had to stay home to look after Silva all day and couldn’t look for a job. All we could do was recommend him to go through the appropriate UN channels. With well over a million Syrian refugees or internally displaced people in the small region of Kurdistan however, these processes are long and often futile.Silva 6 As we left, picking our way carefully down broken steps, slimy with waste water, Silva began to wail. Later we went for tea with another resident of the camp and asked if she knew about Silva and her father. Oh yes, she said, one eyebrow raised. I pressed her further; wasn’t it strange Silva’s mother left her? “He must have beaten her. No mother leaves her child without reason.” In fact, she continued, the rumour was that he had divorced three wives. Curling her upper lip into a sneer, she said “he asked a woman in the camp to marry him recently, but only on the understanding that she stayed at home with the girl all day and never left her alone. Can you imagine?”