Sinjar, the home of a relatively unknown ethnoreligious minority group in northern Iraq, the Yezidis, now lays destroyed, surrounded by mass graves and mines. Islamic State took a hold of the city and its surroundings at the beginning of august 2014, calling upon the slaughter of Yezidi ‘infidels’ and the capture and trade of their women and girls. Their crime? Being Yezidi.
As a result, many families ran for their lives, only to be stranded on Mount Sinjar for days without food and water. Testimonies of those who escaped ISIL captivity recounted stories of torture, brainwashing, dehumanising treatment and systematic rape and sexual slavery of girls as young as nine years old.
Six years after the genocide not much has changed for the Yezidis. Although ISIL has been defeated and Sinjar liberated, many Yezidis still remained displaced in refugee camps in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
It is only recently, between June and August 2020 that families have started to return by bigger numbers. A crisis that had not been foreseen was the great number of invisible wounds: traumas and deterioration of mental health of those that survived the bloodbath and captivity.
In Sinjar, survivors suffering from mental health problems are supported by Cordaid and local partner organisation Access Aid Foundation through Mental Health and Psychosocial Support. This involves clinical treatment of mental disorders as well as psychosocial support and activities.
As the needs are growing while the capacity of Iraq’s health systems and NGOs is limited, Cordaid initiated research to investigate ways to alleviate the collective, rather than the individual traumas of Yezidi returnees in Sinjar. The research was led by Rebecca Boogaard, a student of International Development Management as part of her bachelor’s thesis in close collaboration with Cordaid’s local partner on the ground Access Aid Foundation.
From May to August 2020, researchers held door-to door-interviews with male and female Yezidi returnees of all ages in Sinjar city as well as with MHPSS professionals, mostly from the community themselves. Of the respondents, the majority experienced potential traumatising events ranging from the fear of being killed and witnessing killings with a weapon to physical assault, torture and captivity.
The impact of the genocide mainly resulted in the loss of hope, lack of trust in the other communities and constant thinking and talking about the tragedy. However, current contextual stressors such as unemployment, unsafety in the areas paired with the fear of being killed because of their identity, worry about the future and the lack of recreational activities play an almost equally important role in the worsened mental wellbeing of the entire community.
Improving mental wellbeing
Research shows that improving the mental wellbeing of emergency affected populations requires a multi-layered approach on different levels of society. The research conducted by Cordaid focussed on national, community and family level needs.
According to the interviewees, to address the collective trauma of the community, its people should be able to obtain their basic needs, including access to public services and (basic) human rights. These include recognition of Yezidi rights and identity in the Iraqi constitution, safety, financial support and rebuilding infrastructure since Sinjar is still a war-torn area in the disputed region of Iraq.
The second set of most prominent needs on the national level relate to collective trauma healing, namely: justice, commemoration and remembrance rituals, excavation of mass graves and (according to some) support in peaceful coexistence.
On the community level, creating an environment to heal, is first and foremost associated with the return of the still missing and kidnapped persons, enabling survivors to get closure on their ambiguous loss and mourn.
Next to closure on the fate of the missing, strong psychosocial support was deemed important, as well as job, career and livelihood opportunities, improving greenery and environment, such as public parks, and the possibility to follow (informal) education to increase skills.
Needs such as access to healthcare, compensation for loss or financial support, in general, to support torn families in keeping their heads above the water, are considered crucial for battling stressors and improving mental health on and family and interpersonal level. Above all, however, the Yezidis who were interviewed indicate the community is in dire need of a future perspective.
Mental health and sustainable return
Of the one hundred respondents, only 15% believed in a future for the Yezidis in Iraq. Lack of safety, and multiple political armed parties in the region, the lack of justice and carelessness from the government for them next to the loss of hope, lack of basic services in Sinjar and the non-return of the missing and kidnapped are all factors that make Yezidis fear the future.
Then why did they return? 96% argue that Sinjar is home and the (only) place they belong. Sinjar is part of their identity and therewith also hope, after the attempted eradication of their identity, in the fight to keep Yezidi DNA alive in Iraq.
For some, the emotional connectedness to Sinjar weighs higher than practical and economic considerations to stay in Sinjar. The poor living conditions and financial struggle in the areas of refuge were often considered as push-factors to return to Sinjar with hopes of rebuilding their lives.
Many interviewees regarded factors that were important for collective trauma healing as also important for staying in Sinjar in the long-term. These factors involved access to healthcare and MHPSS services, the excavation of mass graves, livelihood and education opportunities and safety and security.
Next to these very basic (psychological) needs, commemoration and remembrance rituals for the deceased, improving greenery and environment through for instance planting trees, and opportunities to practice hobbies and other activities were found to be important for sustainable return as well as trauma healing.
The way forward
On the basis of the results from the study, NGOs are encouraged to acknowledge the complexity and interlinkage of mental wellbeing with people’s socio-economic environment (e.g. economic opportunity, safety, access to basic services) and design programs accordingly.
Although it is complicated in a context such as the disputed territories in Iraq, if the lack of acknowledgement, justice, and closure remain and life does not turn back to some sort of ‘normal’, including daily routines to securing and maintaining a livelihood, traumas will most likely only accelerate.
The severely broken trust as a result of trauma, combined with the lack of acknowledgement, pursuit of justice and safety and security all stir up feelings of anger, anxiety, uncertainty and ultimately hopelessness. Such mental state survivors find themselves in, will form an obstacle to any reconciliation or dialogue efforts and should be carefully considered and addressed when striving to foster peace and mental wellbeing.