Talk instead of tanks: coming to terms with the past in Iraq as a stabilising factor

Talk instead of tanks: coming to terms with the past in Iraq as a stabilising factor

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Crncic, Zeljko
The Current Column (2015)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) (The Current Column of 31 August 2015)

Reporting on the war of the self-declared "Islamic State" against Iraq and Syria is heavily influenced by political instability and geo-strategic constellations. Talk of military solutions is predominant. However, the long-term traumatisation of the civilian population is easily forgotten in the process.

And it is the civilian population in particular that is threatened by the offensive of Islamic State. Further factors include the long-term psycho-social consequences of expulsion, rape and physical assault.

For decades now the country between the Euphrates and Tigris has been confronted with an enormous level of violence that never seems to dissipate: the wars with neighbouring Iran in the 1980s, the US assault following the occupation of Kuwait by the army of Saddam Hussein and the US invasion that began in 2003. One current focal point of violence is the emergence of the terror group Islamic State. For over a year now this organisation has inflicted an unsurpassed campaign of violence on Iraq and neighbouring Syria, attracting worldwide attention.

Consequences of the latest developments are massive displacement, kidnapping and traumatisation of the population, violence against women and children as well as material destruction in the areas attacked or occupied by Islamic State.

The region of Kurdistan, where many of those displaced seek refuge, has itself been subject to decades of excessive violence, peaking with the Anfal campaign of former dictator Saddam Hussein, a punitive action at the end of the 1980s that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of mostly Kurdish civilians, and the poison gas attack on the town of Halabja in 1988, which resulted in 5,000 deaths in just a few days.

This experience of extreme violence leaves its mark on society, even years after a conflict has ended. Consequences include severe trauma, frequently manifested in the form of fear, anger, depression or the inability to sleep. The psychological disorders of a large number of people have an enduring influence on the social fabric of a society. The international community is therefore called upon to consider these long-term effects of war in their search for peace and stability in Iraq and beyond. Peace is not only manifested in the establishment of democratic institutions, the holding of elections, traversable roads and functioning energy supplies. These are undoubtedly important elements. But beyond these it is necessary to deal with the trauma in order to enable people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds to cohabit once again, to remove support for future terror groups or militias in search of revenge.

The international community, that is the Arab neighbours with their various interests and Western states, is still nowhere near even attempting to establish a plan to bring peace, state consolidation and reconciliation to the battered region. However, as a result of the historic links to the region it bears at least a joint responsibility for events occurring there. Such a plan is urgently required, because the example of Iraq illustrates that the current terror campaigns, the flows of refugees and the violent excess are creating tomorrow's problems for the West. In this respect, German exports of military material are certainly not a good investment for the future. In spite of the necessity of also tackling terror groups via military means, what happens afterwards in a society marked by conflict should definitely form part of a comprehensive plan for consolidation.

Individual initiatives that can serve as role models are already in place. The first organisation fulfilling this paragon in a certain manner was the association Jiyan which was founded in 2005 to support victims of torture in Iraq by offering psychological guidance. Jiyan takes care of people regardless their ethnical and religious affiliations and the organisation is active on women’s and children’s behalves. In Germany, the association cooperates with the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims (BZFO). Also in the matter of trauma and coping strategies, the Christian organisation Wings of Hope works in close collaboration with Jiyan and trains native on-site specialists. Efforts and commitments like these deserve the attention and support of the public, as well as of political decision makers.

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