Just about every day, we see more news about the political and societal instability in Iraq. This week, officials announced that the death toll from last month’s bombing climbed to 324 people, and not long before that, we heard harrowing accounts about people fleeing violence from ISIS in Fallujah only to be caught in a waterless desert in unbearable heat.
Jeremy Courtney, the executive director of the Iraq-based relief organization Preemptive Love Coalition, posted a Tweet describing the scene as “Hell on earth.”
Iraq is falling apart, and there appears—at least at this point—as if there’s no end in sight.
We talked with Courtney about the situation in Iraq and how those of us here in the United States can help.
For those who were unaware of what was going on, can you describe what was happening and why?
So for the last couple of years Fallujah has largely been under the control of ISIS, not necessarily because the people there want that or believe in ISIS’s ideology, but because at the origin of it all, the regime was considered more troubling than what ISIS was offering at that time.
So for the last two years we have been largely locked out of Fallujah. It’s been kind of ground zero of what we’ve seen ISIS doing throughout the region and the world. Around February we started hearing horrific reports that an estimated 50,000 people were cut off from food and water. We started doing everything we could to try and break that siege to get inside Fallujah or to get aid inside of Fallujah.
And then on May 23 the Iraqi government launched what they called “Operation Breaking Terror,” an effort to free Fallujah. And within just a couple of days they were very successful and we saw a lot of areas around Fallujah’s city being liberated and while that was good news for those who had been living under ISIS’ reign, it also resulted in tens of thousands of people being driven out of their homes and forced into the desert.
We began working with the military and the paramilitary organizations to get inside the militarized zone and provide help to these people. So Preemptive Love was the only organization during this military operation to ever go inside the militarized zone and deliver aid to the people who needed it most. It’s our job to kind of mitigate the human suffering while the military seeks to eradicate the threat itself.
Last month, there was news that the U.S. is sending 560 troops over to Iraq to help with the Fallujah effort. How did that factor into what you’re describing?
Those troops have been sent to deal with the next major battle which is going to be the battle for Mosul. That is now where a lot of our attention has turned and where our greatest concerns are.
Mosul is probably 10 times the size of Fallujah and we believe there is anywhere from 10 to 20 times the amount of people trapped inside Mosul at this time than there were in Fallujah. And so we are gearing up for and scared of a much bigger humanitarian crisis than what we saw in Fallujah.
And Fallujah was terrible.
The planning, the preparation, the mobilization, the coordination for helping Fallujans was abysmal. And we were one of the fastest, best-equipped, best-funded organizations and it was purely from grassroot friends like RELEVANT who made it happen.
It was just normal people giving a couple hundred dollars here and there that made us able to do what we did. And friends like Switchfoot, Lecrae, Jen Hatmaker and others coming out and really championing the cause.
When you talk about the humanitarian costs of these efforts in Fallujah and what you’re anticipating in Mosul, can you describe some of what you’re talking about. What are the issues that face these people?
So even if you live in a city under ISIS control, there’s still a modicum of normalcy or it can become a new kind of normal for you. The rules on what you can do may be suffocating, but over time you learn what ISIS expects of you and you can, to some degree, conform to those expectations.
At its worst ISIS or the militia or government against ISIS can create policies and tactics that result in entire areas being cut off from food and water. This is what we saw in Fallujah where people started starving. We talked to a number of people who have come out of Fallujah and said they didn’t have anything to eat or drink for a month. People have talked about surviving on rotten dates, eating grass, having to catch wild street animals like dogs and cats.
Even as horrible as that is, you have your home. You can go in at night and lock your door and pray to God that ISIS doesn’t come in.
But when troops enter into your city and go door to door fighting ISIS, ultimately you have to grab whatever you can put in your hands in a few seconds and run for your life. You have to get through ISIS is sniping at you from buildings to kill you as a civilian to prevent you from escaping or grabbing your children and using them as human shields to prevent troops from advancing.
After you make it through that, you have to advance through mine fields that ISIS has set up and watch people beside you being blown up every step along the way and hope to God you can make it through the minefield.
Then you make it to the other side of all that terror and find yourself in an open desert with nothing in front of you and no one there to help you.
That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about human suffering. We’re talking about going into the summer heat. 120-125 degree heat.
People who have already been depleted and starving and without hope for months on end thinking that maybe in some way they’ve gotten free only to find out that their new reality in the desert is going to be its own kind of nightmare all over again.
Our task is to meet them where they are and transform this hellish nightmare situation into something that’s full of hope and try to help them see that there’s another side to this, that there’s an awakening to this nightmare that they’ve been in.
So tell me, when you go about that task of pushing back this hellishness and not accepting that it’s a prominent reality, what are the kinds of things that you’re trying to do and then on top of that, how can we here in the United States can help serve those efforts?
Thankfully when the needs of a situation are so fundamental, the responses are not overly complex.
They need food, water, shelter, medicine and protection. These things are not overly difficult to get our minds around. They are not difficult in some cases to procure and to actually deliver to those who need it most.
The delivery often comes with great risk as we experienced just a couple of weeks ago, when our trucks full of a hundred thousand pounds of food broke down in the desert and the team was bombed in an airstrike.
So delivering this aid is not easy, but it’s still very fundamental. At the end of the day people need food and they need water and that’s what we’re doing every day. That’s what we’re undertaking.
So when you ask how people can join us ultimately it’s a pretty simple, but powerful, profound partnership. When people give right now we are turning $65 into a month’s worth of food for an entire family and we are going to places that no one else is really willing to go and we are enduring the kinds of threat and hardship that few others are willing to endure, but at the end of the day we’re making a massive impact in the lives of kids and women and their fathers who have lived through the darkest nightmare of their life.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury