“At checkpoints, you never knew what would happen. One day, they grabbed me and cut my dress. They thought it was too long.
Before, I went to school, played football, and could travel and meet people. All that had disappeared. ISIL was against life.
The city and surrounding villages were closed off by ISIL. We were trapped. People who tried to leave risked having their throats cut. Or be killed by mines, which is what happened to one of my relatives.
Because of this blockade, shortages increased and prices of a lot of basic commodities like tomatoes, onions, and sugar flared up. At one point, a kilo of rice cost 100 US dollars. No one could afford that. There was no electricity, no gas. We had to cook on wood again.
The blockade also caused a surplus of meat, because livestock farmers, such as ourselves, couldn’t sell their animals on markets outside Hawija. As a result, our income dropped dramatically.”
“Meanwhile, Iraqi and coalition forces waged war against ISIL. We were in constant fear of rockets and air strikes. And we were afraid of wrongly being taken for ISIL members because ISIL used citizens as human shields. And because we had to clothe like ISIL and wear beards like them, it was easy to mistake us for ISIL fighters.
One day around midnight, in June 2015, there was a huge explosion after an air strike. The sky was all red. All our windows and doors were broken. And we lived miles away. Just imagine what happened inside the city.
There’s simply too much daily work to do and no time or headspace to start processing the past.
At one point, life had become impossible. We couldn’t buy food anymore. In March 2016, our family decided to take a big risk. Secretly, at night, we left for Kirkuk, the nearest city that had not been captured by ISIL. We were ten people. The youngest was a baby boy, 8 months old, breastfed by his mother. We crossed the Al Zab river on foot and walked for four days. We weren’t caught. In Kirkuk, we first lived in an IDP camp, then moved to a place in the city.
In January 2018, after the Hawija area, including our village, had been recaptured by Iraqi and coalition forces, we decided to come back. Our house was still there, but it was looted.”
“I can’t talk about what happened with my parents”
“I wanted to pick up life where I had left it and go back to school, study, and become a police officer. That was impossible. I had to give up school. My dad was old, and too depressed by all the hardship and the grief, he couldn’t work any longer. So I took over. It’s hard, but I manage. But it still saddens me that a big part of my life and my dreams have been taken away from me.
Mentally, we hardly cope with everything that has befallen us. I barely do anyway. There’s simply too much daily work to do and no time or headspace to start processing the past. I can’t talk with my parents about what happened. In fact, I don’t want to. It would only be an extra burden for them. With friends my age we sometimes talk about it. That helps. We share memories. Like when we were selling stuff at the market one day, when suddenly there was an air raid and we had to run like crazy and one of my cousins fell and cut his face and how it made us laugh.
Businesswise, I am not doing too bad, considering where we come from. But we’re not even close to where we were before the war. I have three cows and seven sheep of my own. I also take care of four cows belonging to other family members. We’re selling milk and meat. And the good thing is prices are going up.”
“I had ideas, but I didn’t have the money”
“The bad thing is the drought. Levels of water wells and rivers are dropping. Rains are rare. And we need water to grow crops to feed our animals. Before, we could grow our own crops for fodder. Now we have to buy it. Water scarcity is also a result of the war. ISIL sabotaged river-fed irrigation systems in the area. They’re still not fixed.
In many ways the support we got from the Blossom Up project is essential. I had ideas of how to expand the small business I ran, but I didn’t have the money or the expertise to do it. With the grant I received, I was able to invest in my business. I built a barn for my animals and a generator to produce much-needed electricity. It will also allow me to buy more calves and increase our livestock.
Apart from that, Blossom Up experts taught us how to run our small enterprise better financially. For example by not rushing things when selling our cows. It’s better to wait a few extra months and have a better price. In fact, the grant we got and the knowledge we gained helped us to look and plan ahead and have a longer-term vision. When you are carrying the responsibility for 13 family members, as I do, this kind of support is a relief. It helps me to move forward. I am now finally able to save some money for future investments.”
Remember the baby?
“You know what, despite the hardship and the sadness we all feel, I am also happy. Ten days ago my wife gave birth to our third child. It’s a boy. And remember the eight-month-old baby that was with us when we ran for our lives, escaping ISIL? He is six years old today and going to school.”
Text and images: Frank van Lierde / Cordaid