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'Nobody wants to go back'

Jeanette Seiffert / ccAugust 19, 2014

Aid organizations are sending support to northern Iraq. Among them is Friedhelm Simon of German NGO Help, who is organizing aid on the Turkish-Iraqi border. He tells DW of a chaotic situation and traumatized refugees.

Simon and colleagues distribute food. (Photo: Help/IBC)
Image: Help/IBC

DW: Mr. Simon, where exactly are you at the moment, and what is the situation there?

Friedhelm Simon: At the moment we are in the town of Zakho in northern Iraq, near the Turkish border. Over the past few days a large number of people have fled here, most of them Yazidis. There are estimated to be around 150,000 refugees in this region. They've provisionally been accommodated in schools and half-finished buildings, or they've set up camp in gas stations. The situation here really is pretty bad. There's no food aid from the authorities; the refugees we've met so far are all being fed by neighbors who are bringing them fruit such as watermelons. So far the local population has been more than ready to help, but I don't know how long that will last.

Your organization plans to extend its assistance there. What, specifically, could that mean? What's needed most urgently on the ground?

Right now we're starting off by organizing support for 2,800 families. To begin with we're distributing emergency aid in the form of food packages containing all the important things like sugar, salt, noodles and rice, enough for about a month. Most of the families have brought at least a couple of cooking utensils with them which they can use to prepare meals. There's no official aid here yet at all; none from the Kurdish side, either, because they're completely overwhelmed. There are simply too many people here, and they're determined not to go back.

Friedhelm Simon. (Photo: Help IBC)
Simon: No aid has reached us yetImage: Help/IBC

How is the aid being coordinated there at the moment? Do you have local partners?

We're working very well with a Turkish organization. We cooperated with them last year, too, on the Syrian border. Its staff are also organizing the food; they're making sure it's sorted and packaged. We simply wouldn't be able to do this without their logistical support.

We're hearing more and more details of the atrocities being perpetrated there by the militant fighters from the "Islamic State" (IS). Do you have the impression that many of the refugees are traumatized?

Many of them are in total shock. They're telling us about unimaginable barbarities, some of which they're able to document with photos they saved on their cell phones. In the refugee camps I was shown photos in which you can see people who've been beheaded because they refused to convert to the Islamic faith. I've never seen anything like it, and I've had a lot of experience in crisis regions. And then, when I think that in Germany some Yazidis, who were demonstrating in the street on behalf of their co-religionists in Iraq, were attacked by Islamists – that is horrifying.

After all these people have been through, is it actually conceivable that they will ever return to their homes?

No. I haven't met a single one who's prepared to go back. Even the ones who've made it to Kurdish territory are determined to carry on, to go on to Turkey, because they're terrified that the Islamists will penetrate these areas as well. They just want to go far, far away, the majority of them to Europe.

What are the prospects for the refugees where they are now? Can they stay there for the time being?

The problem is: What are you going to do with the people here? At some point in the next few weeks winter will arrive, and then it will get very cold here. It's hardly going to be possible to construct camps for all these people within such a short time. The local authorities don't know how to cope with the onslaught of people, either. They feel as if they've pretty much been abandoned and left to deal with this problem on their own. And the Turkish government has enough problems already providing for all the Syrian refugees. Many of the refugees from Iraq can't get over the Turkish border anyway, because their passports were taken away from them by the Islamists. They simply don't know where to go any more.

The German government has approved humanitarian aid for northern Iraq, and the German army has already delivered 36 tons of aid. More is supposed to follow this week. Have you noticed that having an effect already?

None of it has reached us yet, here at the Turkish-Iraqi border. No one has asked us what we need here in this region, either. I imagine that the aid has been handed over to the local authorities in Irbil and distributed in the vicinity. We are the only ones represented here in this region. No other international aid organizations are active here. All the aid the refugees are being supplied with here is coming from private sources.

Friedhelm Simon has been coordinating humanitarian aid in crisis regions in Africa and Asia for 30 years, including during civil wars and natural disasters. For the past 15 years he has been with the German non-governmental organization "Help – Hilfe zu Selbsthilfe e.V.," prior to which he worked for another German aid organization, "Welthungerhilfe." "Help" is currently providing food for around 14,000 displaced persons in northern Iraq.