How Iraqi Men Who Survived ISIS Are Fighting A New Battle: Themselves
A war in the head.
BY Corinne Redfern | Oct 10, 2017 | Culture
Three years after the Mount Sinjar massacre horrified the world, survivors in an Iraqi refugee camp are still dealing with the unimaginable trauma inflicted by ISIS. As a mental health crisis reaches boiling point in the Middle Eastern heat, men determined to survive are doing the unthinkable - asking for help from the women in their society. Exclusively for Esquire UK, Corinne Redfern reports from Dohuk.
The alcohol in the thermometer is hovering somewhere in between 46 and 47 degrees Celsius, and the air is doing that hazy, wavy, distorted thing; rendering everything misshapen and blurred, like you've been punched right in the contact lens. Still, inside his tent, Adnan* appears frozen. Standing in front of a small, mottled mirror suspended by a piece of frayed blue string, the 25-year-old stares, motionless, at a t-shirt bunched up in a ball on the floor, before pulling a long-sleeved top over his head instead. With a look of defeat he wipes a wet slick of perspiration from his forehead, and sits down on the floor.
"It's the scars," he tells me later that day as we squat on breeze blocks outside his tent in Shariya – an Iraqi-Kurdish IDP camp dating back two and a half years and housing approximately 19,100 survivors of the 2014 Yazidi genocide. "I don't know how I feel about people seeing them. I don't know how other people feel about seeing them. But it's too hot to cover up." He rolls up his sleeves to point at lines that criss-cross his triceps and along the length of his wrists. Some are still scabbed; recent wounds from a long-fought battle. "I'm trying to get to a place where I will be comfortable with them on show, so that if someone else sees them and they're struggling in the same way, then maybe they'll feel less alone." Sweat runs down his face as he speaks. He's given up trying to stem its flow.
In an era of Instagram reporting and drone footage, you don't need to have visited a refugee camp in order to be familiar with the set up. Row upon row of standardised white tents, 4000 UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) logos emblazoned on the side; The occasional flat pack office or caravan classroom – dirt embedded in the corrugated channels of their identikit metal walls; Children swinging upside-down from grey-stained guy lines. Mud and dust elsewhere. Over time, these 'temporary' tarpaulin towns take on an individual character, and Shariya's identifying marker is its silence. As the sun slams against the tent tops, residents have largely taken to lying flat on the ground, staring at the ceiling and refusing to move. There's simply nothing else to do. Wander down the makeshift streets at midday, and witness at least two men in tears.
And yet, local aid workers describe Shariya as "luxurious". Residents may have lost everything as they fled to safety, but over time, possessions have been slowly picked up and accumulated. Electricity is sporadic and unreliable, but flat screen televisions sit on crates in the corner and Huawei phone cables tangle on the floor. Technically – when generators decide to hum into action and actually work – there is air conditioning. Tents have doors which swing open on hinges and lock, should residents decide to leave.
Problem is – there's nowhere for half of them to go. In a patriarchal society where men are largely responsible for financing their families, the hope was that by building a camp on the outskirts of Duhok – a city of 250,000 – male IDPs would be able to hitch rides to the centre and find work; eventually enabling them to earn enough money to leave Shariya and start over. "But that hasn't happened," one camp official tells me. "The economy is struggling. So now we're not sure how long everyone will be here. Even when we defeat ISIS for good, many families say they'd be too scared to return home in case there are hidden IEDs or explosives underneath their houses. Plus, there are the memories." And while women's charities and organisations quickly rose to the challenge of assisting female survivors – setting up much-needed rehab centres to provide psychological support to those forced into sexual slavery by the extremists, encouraging them to talk about their experiences, and working to overcome the increased risk of gender-based violence in the camp itself by establishing a series of 'safe spaces' – the male equivalent doesn't exist.
Adnan was one of the first men to turn up at the Women's Rehabilitation Organisation. Two years earlier, he and his wife, Sara*, 35, had stood on the gravel by the main entrance to the camp – their hands empty but for a carrier bag of oranges and their then-one-year-old daughter. "We'd had a difficult few months," he recalls now, pausing as he processes the weight of his own understatement. "ISIS had arrived in our town in Sinjar and started killing and kidnapping all of our friends; our families; everyone. We fled to the mountains, but had to leave our lives behind. By the time we got to Shariya, we had been sleeping in the forest for weeks. We didn't know who was dead or alive. We still don't." Back then, his primary emotions were anger and hope. Anger that the world could let ISIS take away his family and everything he'd worked for. Hope that the camp would enable him to get it all back. "But somewhere along the line, the hope disappeared, and then my anger felt useless and I just stopped feeling anything at all."
Scoring his arms helped shake the numbness, at first. When that stopped working, he took things further. "I've tried to kill myself eight times since we arrived here," Adnan explains during a counselling session. "I think I probably had problems before ISIS came, but staying in the camp made everything worse. I couldn't get a job or afford to feed my family. I felt like I was letting everyone down." His first attempt was with a knife he'd been given to cook with. "Then I tried to jump off the roof of a building, and after that, I bought a poison from a local medicine man. I tried tying ropes around my neck and using a plastic bag. But nothing worked – someone found me and stopped me every time."
Invariably, that person was Sara. "We weren't talking about our feelings because that's not the way you do things here," she says. "But I understood that he needed me."
So did his friends. When a cousin found him self-harming for the sixth day in a row, he led him to four "well-known" NGOs [Non Governmental Organisations] on the site – all of which apparently turned the pair away because they didn't have the facilities to support him. In desperation they ended up outside the yellow mobile classroom that serves as the WRO's office. "I didn't want to go in because they're for women, but my cousin told me I didn't have a choice. He would wait with me all day if I wanted, but eventually I would have to ask for help."
As gender divides go, the gap between Iraqi men and women is chasmic and curtained off. Shaking hands with a woman are sometimes frowned upon, often forbidden. Restaurant eating areas are largely segregated – men eat in the main hall, while female customers are ushered upstairs or round the corner, discreetly hidden from public view. Even in Shariya, men command their limited space; wives appearing and disappearing on demand with a silver teapot in hand. In other words, the woman's place is still the kitchen – and bonus points if the kitchen is out of sight. Visiting a 'Women's Centre' isn't a sign of weakness as much as upending everything you've been raised to do.
"And yet these days Adnan is one of my best patients." Social worker Gelan Ackel leans back in her chair and smiles at him kindly, before looking back over in my direction. "The situation here is getting worse by the day."
Adnan* sits with his family outside their social worker's office in the Shariya camp, Iraq. Photograph by Francesco Brembati.
At 37 years old, Gelan has been heading up camp-based counselling services for the WRO for almost 12 months; first joining UNICEF in the weeks following the genocide – and can't remember the last time a day went without a man knocking on her door to ask for psychological support. "Of course we need to protect our female patients, but we're not going to turn someone away just because we're supposed to be helping women."
The stakes are stratospheric. While there were only four incidents of attempted suicide from July to January last year, Gelan reveals that in June 2017, there were four cases within the first two weeks – and the numbers continued to climb over the course of the summer; a fact she attributes to rising temperatures, daily power cuts and water shortages. "We're not meeting basic needs," she explains. "Even this morning a man poked his head in – all smiles and civility – then apologised for bothering me, and explained that he'd stopped by because he'd found himself looking for a knife to kill himself with and he wasn't sure what to do about it. I couldn't exactly say, 'Oh sorry, we can't help you because you're the wrong gender and we're not used to men talking about their feelings'."
On the other side of the camp, Masod, 16, is hunched over, knuckles white around the edge of his iPhone as he completes another level of Clash of Clans. It's not a new game – he downloaded it about six months ago – but recently he's started playing it more and more: building up a village from scratch, raising a family (sorry, 'clan'), and fighting against bearded enemies who dare come too close. "It's distracting," he explains. "If you don't distract yourself, you just think too much." About what, he doesn't need to say. His own home was destroyed in August 2014, when the Islamist caliphate targeted the Yazidi minority religious ethnic group in Sinjar; killing up to 4,400 and taking approximately 10,800 women and children captive within the space of a few days. All of his friends have the game, he tells me as his mother shrugs from the other side of the tent. "It makes sense if they find it helpful," she says. At this, Masod looks up. "Oh yeah," he grins. "We've got loads of techniques for coping here now."
First up is walking. His 18-year-old sister, Nasreen, started that one. "She was feeling depressed, so she called up all her friends and asked them to go on a walk with her. When they came back, she was so much happier than the rest of us. So the next week our mother did the same thing with her friends too. And after that, I thought, 'it's silly if only the girls get to help each other out'. So I called my friends up too." That was three months ago. These days a group of six or seven teenage boys head out every evening to the field outside the main gate, where they complete five circuits through the dry grass – before heading back to the camp schoolyard for a game of football. "Sometimes just walking in silence is enough," Masod adds. "But my friends whose sisters were kidnapped by ISIS are finding it harder than me. So sometimes they need to talk." Leaving the camp feels like leaving a weight behind, he says. "Even just an hour makes you feel sane again."
Masod (far left) sits with his younger brothers in his tent. Photograph by Francesco Brembati.
Crying comes next. "The thing is, when we lived in Shingal, everything was normal, but here, nothing is normal so the idea of what 'normal' has totally changed. Crying isn't shameful any more." Masod has put his phone down now; too animated by the conversation to multitask with mustachioed barbarians for the time being. "Here sometimes you go outside and none of your friends even look at you because they're too depressed to even form words. So if crying helps someone, why would you judge them for that? I mean, whenever I feel really unhappy, I still leave the tent because I don't want to cry in front of my mothers or sisters. But that's because I don't want them to worry about me. And if my friends see me, they'll stop and sit with me for a while. Crying doesn't make anyone weak. We've all survived a lot. We know we're strong."
Gelan agrees that younger men in the camp appear to be more comfortable displaying emotion than they used to be. "But I think the fact that depression seems to make sense here has a lot to do with it," she says. "For example, eating disorders are hugely on the increase – we've seen approximately 100 cases since February in both men and women. When we try to treat them, patients say they're depressed or that they feel out of control, and that refusing food makes them feel better somehow. Outside of the camp, people might not relate to that – but here, there's a tangible cause." Masod nods at this statement. "I know a man who was a Peshmerga fighter – like, he was a really great man. Then his two little kids were taken by ISIS and he just stopped eating. He got thinner and thinner until he died about a month ago.
"I still have friends outside Shariya who would have said, 'oh he's psycho or weird, don't talk to him'. But he was just having a hard time. That's something that everyone here can understand. It's not something we're ashamed of. But I do feel bad because maybe actually we could have helped him."
Back at Adnan's tent, the temperature still appears to be climbing – but he's switched to his short sleeved t-shirt. "Maybe it's not so bad if someone sees the scars," he says. "Maybe they're hurting too."
10 October is World Mental Health Day.
From: Esquire UK