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Aftermath of genocide in Iraq:  Sikh mission of mercy

Tim Uppal talks to a young genocide survivor. Uppal asked the girl what she most wanted. She replied that she wanted her father and brothers back. They were abducted by ISIS and are still missing. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi.

"Love and be loved."--Rod Stewart, 2015.

In a world polarized along political and religious lines, slogans and stereotypes often obscure the truth and sometimes even promote falsehoods.

For example, some partisans would have ordinary folks believe that conservatives are heartless and don’t care about what goes on in the rest of the world.

While it may be true that some conservatives are unfeeling isolationists, there is no question that many conservatively minded individuals are deeply compassionate and believe in humanitarian activism and international engagement.

Humanitarian is an apt description of Tim Uppal, a compassionate conservative who believes in helping the vulnerable wherever they may be. So it’s not surprising that the Canadian-born Sikh travelled to Iraq this summer to provide humanitarian assistance to the survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Taking time away from family and work, Uppal made the long trip from Edmonton, Alberta to northern Iraq to help those who have suffered unimaginable losses and continue to endure terrible living conditions.

In the summer of 2014, ISIS swept across northern Iraq, capturing vast swathes of territory. And the jihadist army established a so-called caliphate based on a genocidal ideology that justified the eradication of religious and ethnic minorities.

The Islamic State systematically carried out campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, abductions of women and children, and sexual violence. The jihadists also deliberately destroyed cultural artefacts and churches, and looted and sold ancient works of art on the black market.

The Islamic State was finally defeated in 2017, driven from its strongholds in Iraq. However, ISIS fighters remain active in Iraq, adopting terrorist tactics, including suicide bomb attacks on civilian targets. Clearly, the security situation in Iraq is far from stable.

It was against this backdrop that Uppal travelled to the region previously controlled by ISIS. From July 17 to 24th, he worked as a volunteer with the faith-based humanitarian organization Khalsa Aid, which operates out of Great Britain. His humanitarian mission took him to the Kurdish controlled population centre of Erbil as well as to camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northern Iraq.

Tim Uppal delivers humanitarian assistance to an informal IDP camp. The genocide survivors live in makeshift tents fashioned out of tarps. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi.

Uppal is a former Canadian Member of Parliament and served as the minister of state for multiculturalism in the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He was narrowly defeated in the 2015 federal election. In June of 2018, he re-entered federal politics, winning the Conservative Party of Canada nomination for the riding of Edmonton Millwoods.

Khalsa Aid, a Sikh nongovernmental organization (NGO), was founded by Ravi (Ravinder) Singh. “I had been following him for a number of years,” Uppal said in a telephone interview from Edmonton, Alberta. "It was amazing to see that someone was doing this,” he said of Singh's humanitarian work in Iraq and elsewhere.

When he was a Member of Parliament, Uppal spoke with Singh on the telephone “just to learn more about what he’s doing.” Eventually Uppal and Singh met in person in Ottawa, and Uppal offered “to help in any way.”

Eventually, recalled Uppal, he got a call from the NGO offering him the chance to go to Iraq to help with humanitarian relief efforts there. Uppal jumped at the chance. “And I am very pleased I did that,” he said.

Islamic State committed genocide

Northern Iraq is home to many ancient Christian groups—Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and others-- who are indigenous to the region. In 2014, when Islamic State forces swept across the north, Christian cities, towns, and villages were ethnically cleansed and homes were destroyed. And many Christians were killed and others were abducted.

The jihadists were also intent on wiping out the Yezidi, another distinct ethnic/religious group. In fact, the Yezidi were subjected to especially furious genocidal attacks, mass executions, and sexual slavery.

During his time in northern Iraq, Uppal met with survivors of the genocide and listened to their horrifying stories.

“I must say that it was an eye-opening experience,” he said of meeting and listening to the survivors. “Heartbreaking in so many ways; it was unbelievable.”

Uppal visited with the survivors in informal IDP camps. He explained that Khalsa Aid is helping many IDPs who were not able to find space in the main camps. These people are living rough in makeshift communities or even rougher in unfinished buildings.

“That’s where we met them, in their homes,” Uppal said of the survivors’ humble dwellings.

Tim Uppal (left) speaks with a humanitarian worker (right) as a young girl (middle) listens. The girl recently returned from ISIS captivity. Her only living family member is her father. "She cut her hair really short to look like a boy while in captivity," Uppal said. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi. ​

According to Uppal, the survivors of the genocide have endured “unimaginable situations.” And he said it was “very difficult” for him to hear women and girls tell their stories of sexual violence inflicted upon them by the Islamic State.

Despite the horrors of the genocide and sexual violence, Uppal said that it was inspiring to listen to women and girls talk of their desire to start businesses or begin a new life. “The spirit to do so, after what they have gone through, is just amazing,” he stated. “It’s inspiring. And it really shows how resilient they are.”

Survivors’ stories

“When you talk to older women, you will hear how they were jailed or held captive,” Uppal said of his listening sessions with the survivors. “And they were more concerned about what happened to their families. The men were killed off, the young boys-they are hoping they are still alive, but they still don’t know...and their daughters are being sold and used as sexual slaves.”

Tim Uppal (left) listens to Gawre (right), a genocide survivor. Uppal described her as "an extremely strong woman who was captured by ISIS." The woman managed to escape ISIS, but "her immediate and extended family is still missing," Uppal said. Gawre shows Uppal pictures of her family. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi.

Uppal also heard mothers talk about their daughters being raped and/or killed right in front of them. “It is difficult to hear,” he said again, his voice trailing off.

“You sit down with a younger woman, who was a sexual slave herself. And I didn’t pry for many details. I just listened through the interpreter.”

He said that many of the women talked about how they escaped from their ISIS captors, often in the dead of night. “Either they escaped,” he said, “or they were bought back by their families.”

Uppal explained that there are online groups that sell the female captives, posting pictures of and asking prices for the slaves. “I talked to a smuggler who helps people get their families back and get their daughters back,” he said. The families raise the funds to buy the daughters back. “I talked to a mother who is doing that,” Uppal added.

“The smuggler will take the money and pretend to be a purchaser and actually pretty much risk his own life to purchase this girl back for the family,” he explained.

“That’s happening right now,” Uppal continued. And he noted that there was a Kurdish government programme to help provide funds to buy back women. “But obviously there is more that needs to be done, and there are still women that are there (in captivity).”

Boys are also being held captive by ISIS. “I met a young boy whose family helped to buy his way out,” Uppal recalled. “He was a general labourer, and he was just used by ISIS to deliver food and deliver supplies and stuff.”

In addition, Uppal spoke to women who were held captive and impregnated by their captors, giving birth in captivity. But he said these children are not accepted by their mothers’ communities once they get away from ISIS. And he said that some mothers have to make the decision to either stay with their children in ISIS captivity, or leave their children behind and escape.

Uppal said that he met women “who left their children” behind with ISIS. And he also talked to families who said that their daughters won’t leave ISIS, because they refuse to leave their children behind. “It’ unimaginable,” he said. “I don’t even know how some of them are coping. And you can tell that there are some serious psychological issues that need to be addressed.”