Fifteen year-old Falah is playing an animated game of foosball in an unlikely place – a tent atop Sinjar Mountain, Iraq, 1,400 metres above the city he fled when militants attacked last year.
Over the thwack of the ball ricocheting around the small wooden pitch, he tells me about his life in limbo.
“I’ve been here for one year and four months,” he says. He’s tracking his long days out of school. “I miss home, and my friends, and my teachers.”
The foosball set arrived ten days ago, and a new addition to an otherwise dull and difficult routine on the barren mountain is clearly welcome. Here he forgets about everything that’s been lost. But when the game is over he’ll step out into the bitter cold, onto a bleak plateau, met by nothing but scattered blue and white tarps and the winter fog.
“Its terrible living in a tent up here, but my home is gone. What can we do?”
A desperate escape
In August 2014 this remote corner of Iraq emerged in the global spotlight when news broke that tens of thousands of people, including Falah, were trapped on Mount Sinjar, terrified and starving.
Militants overran Sinjar City and nearby villages, killing or enslaving any Yazidis in their path. The Yazidi are a tiny minority living in northern Iraq who adhere to a religion rooted in Sufism and Zoroastrianism.
Those who escaped fled up the mountain, many making the arduous journey on foot. In the mountains they were safe from attacks, but exposed to the searing summer heat with no food, water, or shelter. Children and the elderly were especially vulnerable; many did not survive the ordeal.
By mid-August a safe corridor was established and most of those who were trapped on the mountain moved to safer locations in neighbouring Dohuk.
But some stayed, unable or unwilling to move further away from their homes. Those who remained on the mountain were beyond reach, inaccessible behind a long and shifting front line.
That changed in November 2015 when militants left Sinjar City and roads in the area were secured, enabling UNICEF and others to provide Falah and his family on Sinjar Mountain with essential supplies and services.
UNICEF had prepared and immediately put a response plan into action when the road to Sinjar Mountain was secured. In December I joined a UNICEF assessment team on the mountain to check on the plan’s progress.
We woke before dawn and followed an armed security team for the three-hour drive from UNICEF’s Field Office in Dohuk. The closer we came, the more recent the signs of conflict; entire villages were flattened and deserted. Near the Syrian border, we passed a team removing landmines from a roadside field. In the last hour we went through security checkpoints every ten minutes.
As we wound up the mountain, the temperature dropped. A fierce gust of wind met us on the plateau, buffeting the makeshift tents of the 1,700 displaced families on the barren plain.
Taking in the view, it was immediately apparent why providing aid here is difficult. The environment is unforgiving – hard, rocky terrain, scarce drinking water, and no vegetation to provide shelter from the fierce sun, heavy rains, or frigid winds. Tents are scattered chaotically across the long plateau, creating challenges for service delivery – particularly for attempting to build a safe water and sanitation network. The sheer distance from one end of the plateau to the other presents challenges in providing access to schools and distributing supplies.
Despite the difficulties, UNICEF has already had a positive impact. Children ran past UNICEF water tanks and latrines at a new school in the middle of the plateau. Blue UNICEF backpacks carried on small sets of shoulders stood out against the brown and grey plain. We passed a team from the Department of Health conducting a UNICEF-supported vaccination campaign. And we spoke to children wearing warm winter clothes provided by UNICEF the week before our visit.
Hawaz, 9, from a village near Sinjar, told me he was happy to have new jacket. “Now I’m warm when I walk to school!” he said. He told me he loves to study, and wants to be a doctor when he grows up.
The progress is heartening, but the needs are immense and much work remains to be done. Falah and his friends playing foosball are all still out of school because there are no teachers here who speak Arabic. Health facilities are scarce, and none treat the challenging mental health issues faced by those who’ve lived through conflict. Many children are recruited into armed groups, subjected to extreme violence, or are married early.
“Child soldiers, child marriage – all of the challenges to children’s rights are gathered here,” the Head of UNICEF’s Dohuk Field Office, Abdijabar Dini told me. “It’s an area that needs a quick and holistic approach.”
Upon returning to Dohuk, the team met to discuss their findings and prepare action plans to meet the needs identified in the assessment. It was clear that despite the difficulties the families on the mountain will remain there for a long time to come.
“These people are suffering.” Mohammed Barwary, a UNICEF Water and Sanitation Officer said in the meeting. “They are scattered, and it seems that they are going to stay. There is no plan for them to move. They are afraid and they have been through enough. They appreciate any support we can give them.”
Lindsay Mackenzie is a Communications Consultant with UNICEF Iraq.