The children must not be let down  | Mission East

The children must not be let down 

“We were 70 people in total, and only nine of us survived. Those of us who survived were the ones who lay under the bodies without moving for two hours while we waited for the ISIS warriors to leave,” said Khalef, who in the featured photo is receiving emergency supplies from Kim Hartzner in February 2015.
Through play, children get the opportunity to replace the experience of violence with something positive.
It can be difficult for women to talk to their family about sexual assault. In the centres, they are given the opportunity to open up and talk about their experiences with fellow victims.

A year ago, the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq suffered violent attacks from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The UN has not hesitated to describe the atrocities as genocide.  History has shown that it is important that these victims are helped to deal with the shock in order to ensure that future generations do not also suffer from the horrific deeds.

The two boys and their father hardly dared to breathe. The sweet and nauseating smell of blood filled their nostrils and they could feel the warmth from the other bodies that lay limp and lifeless around them. The father’s limbs were numb from the gunshot wounds he had suffered. He looked up. One of the other bodies began to move, but immediately an armed warrior fired a machine gun salvo into the man’s head. Only those who lay absolutely still stood any chance of surviving. It took two hours before the warriors left the pile of dead bodies, allowing Khalef and his two boys to make their escape.

Eyewitnesses to a massacre

Khalef is one of the many eyewitnesses to ISIS’ massacre of the Yazidis in August last year, who Kim Hartzner met during Mission East’s relief efforts in Northern Iraq last winter. Khalef is grateful to have survived along with his two sons, but each day they are faced with the memory of the two hours that they lay under a pile of bodies with only a glimmer of hope of surviving. They are not the only ones struggling with difficult memories. Women have been raped, children have lost their parents, and in the midst of a desperate escape, the Yazidis from Sinjar must not only found food and shelter, but also find a way to regain their faith in humanity and in life itself.

Violence is inherited

It is children and women who are the most vulnerable. Due to social taboos, women often have no one to talk to about sexual abuse, while the children are at a fragile stage in life.

“Children who experience the traumas of war become mute. There are many psychological disorders associated with war, and if these go untreated, children and adults will react with violence when they experience violence. It is important that the children are given the chance to work through these experiences so that violence does not continue into the next generation,” explained Jerome Caluyo, who for many years has worked with psychosocial support in war zones and is now Mission East’s country director in war-torn Afghanistan.

Play in a safe environment

Mission East has established centres in Northern Iraq where women have the opportunity to talk about their experiences and children can play and talk together in a safe and calm environment. The centres are called Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS).

“The first reports we have received suggest that the children are doing very well, so our main objective with the centres has been achieved,” said Kendrah Jespersen, who coordinates efforts in Iraq for Mission East. Jerome Caluyo added:

“The idea behind the centres is that you do not confront the child directly about their violent experience, but replace it with something positive, for instance play, games, and group discussions where they share with each other how they are learning cope with their experiences.”

Acknowledgement is important

Acknowledgement by the UN and the international community of the massacres as amounting to genocide is also important. In Armenia, many still struggle with memories of the 1915 genocide because Turkey refuses to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire’s systematic extermination of up to 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. The hatred is consequently allowed to endure for many generations to come. On the other hand, political acknowledgement of atrocities paves the way for bringing those responsible to justice, allowing everyone to move on. This is where eyewitnesses such as Khalef play an important role. He is able to identify those who killed so many of his friends and relatives, and very nearly him and his sons as well. 

Centres for women and children suffering from trauma

  • Mission East has established a centre in Sinjar and an additional two in Kurdistan in abandoned public buildings and large tents.
  • These centres are run by volunteers who themselves are internally displaced.
  • The volunteers receive training in supporting children and adults who have  witnessed – or been victims of – violence.