After Mosul's liberation, genocide victims have right to return home
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The campaign to liberate Mosul could have dire consequences for ethnic and religious minority communities — victims of a genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — unless a plan is made for their protection.

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The assault by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga (supplemented by Christian militias) on Mosul, the largest stronghold of the ISIS is expected to take place in the next several weeks.

Iraqi forces, in conjunction with local defense forces and American troops, are liberating villages along the Mosul corridor and will escalate their efforts as they move towards the city.

With a population of approximately 2.5 million, Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and the capital of the Nineveh Province, the ancient homeland of Assyrian Chaldean Syriac (Christian), Yazidi, and other vulnerable religious minority communities who became the victims of the Islamic State’s systematic genocide.

Prior to 2003, Christians (Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac/Armenian) were one of the largest ethnic minorities in Iraq, estimated to have numbered around 1.5 million.

By June 2014, some two-thirds of the pre-2003 Christian community had already left the country due to the sectarian conflict that ensued following the removal of Saddam Hussein from power that made Christians an easy target for cleansing.

In June of 2014, ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plain, and starting with the city of Mosul, overran one city and town after another, giving Christians of the region the choice to convert to Islam, to pay a tax to the Islamic State, or to leave their cities with nothing more than the clothes on their back – in the worst cases, they killed those who refused to comply.

While they were still in their homes, ISIS militants robbed them of anything they could: documents, money, jewelry, and even furniture. Christians were not offered any protection by either the Iraqi Security Forces or the Kurdish Peshmerga – they were defenseless.

Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last year, Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of Catherine of Siena from Mosul, testified that:

“This uprooting, this theft of everything that the Christians owned, displaced them body and soul, stripping away their humanity and dignity.”

Today, there are only 200,000 Christians who remain in Iraq; most of them living in unsustainable conditions in and outside Erbil, under the Kurdish Regional Government. There are reports of IDPs in some camps living on one can of food a day with limited water in 125 degree heat. Many of these religious minority communities want to return home to the Nineveh Plains.

Humanitarian experts have expressed concern that there is not an adequate plan in place to care for the civilians who will be impacted by the campaign. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million will be affected by the campaign and up to 700,000 could be in need of shelter; and the UNHCR is only capable of accommodating approximately 200 to 400 thousand of this potential refugee population.

“The military operation will escalate the humanitarian crisis’ 700,000 thousand people may need assistance and a whole lot of camps need to be built,” said Elisabeth Koek of the Norwegian Refugee Council at briefing on protection issues ahead of the Mosul battle Thursday on Capitol Hill.

She continued, “The humanitarian community is not ready to provide assistance and the people of Mosul deserve our utmost. They have been living under ISIS for two years.”

Without an appropriate plan for the placement of civilian escape corridors from Mosul and shelter for Mosul civilians, Nineveh’s largest town of Qaraqosh, formerly home to 50,000 Christians and only 20 miles outside Mosul, and the other smaller minority towns, could be flooded with a massive refugee wave from Mosul and thus preclude the return of their original residents, who themselves are now refugees and victims of an ongoing genocide.

The United States must help preserve the right of the genocide-designated minorities to return to the Nineveh towns and villages they were forced by ISIS to abandon two years ago and which now stand vacant and undefended.

As Secretary John KerryJohn Forbes KerryBringing the American election experience to Democratic Republic of the Congo Some Dems sizzle, others see their stock fall on road to 2020 The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE noted in his March 2016 statement officially designating ISIS’ crimes against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities, it is imperative to “ensure that minorities can return in safety, that they are integrated into local security forces, and that they receive equal protection under the law.”

As enormous as the humanitarian challenge will be after the fall of Mosul, the challenges in stabilization, reconstruction, and governance will be much more profound. Sectarian violence has divided the country along ethno-sectarian lines. A federated, decentralized model of governance may be necessary to restore stability to Iraq and to put an end to sectarian violence.

As Iraq’s Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi observed in April 2015:

“If we don’t decentralize, the country will disintegrate. To me, there are no limitations to decentralization.”

In 2014, Iraq’s Council of Ministers “…agreed, in principle, to turn the districts of Tuz Khurmato, Fallujah, and the Nineveh Plains into provinces…” pursuant to Articles 61 and 80 of the Iraqi Constitution.There is also a provision in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Constitution supporting autonomy for religious minority communities.

The United States, its allies in the coalition against ISIS, and regional partners must ensure that Baghdad and Erbil follow through on these commitments.

This represents an historic opportunity for displaced communities to be resettled and for communities to establish local governance and provide for their own local defense.

Olney is the director of government relations and outreach at In Defense of Christians


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.