Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Friday 19 January 2007
Under siege: Iraq's Christians face struggle for survival
In regions afflicted by war, violence is only part of the problem that ordinary families face. Behind the bombs and bullets lies a second battle, the battle to make ends meet. In the second of a series of special reports, Barnabas Aid highlights how the war in Iraq is affecting the ability of Iraqi Christians to provide for themselves, their families, and their futures.
Dora, Baghdad: Yousef * swept the last of the day’s cuttings from the floor, leant the broom against the wall and looked at the clock. Soon he could close up his barber shop in this mixed Sunni - Shia neighbourhood and head home to his family. Through the small and dusty window the street scene outside was normal for this time of day: traders packing up; children playing noisily in the road. Dusk.
Minutes later Yousef would be lying on his back in a pool of blood and broken glass in his shop. The Sunni insurgents who attacked him left him beaten, one of his legs broken and his back badly damaged. It was a warning; in a salon not far from Ws, the proprietor lay dead.
Christian workers targeted
Yousef’s only “crime” was running his business - cutting hair and trimming beards. One of the motives behind the attack was to stop him from working. The Sunni group that attacked Yousef want to drive the Christians and Shia out of Dora. One way they can do this is to stop them from being able to work to support themselves and their families.
Barnadet understands this only too well. An Iraqi Christian, her husband had worked in a liquor store in Baghdad. In June 2006 Sunni insurgents attacked the store, because it violated the Qur'anic prohibition against alcohol. They left the workers dead. With no way to support herself and her two children, Barnadet had little choice but to leave her old life behind and flee to the relative safety of Syria.
Economics of war
Such stories are not unique to Baghdad, or even to Iraq. In times of war, economics becomes a weapon, and a functioning economy is always one of the first casualties of the fighting. In the struggle for scarce resources, Iraqi Christians - a minority mistrusted and despised by many of their fellow countrymen - almost inevitably fare badly.
The violence engulfing Iraq has led to rising costs and falling living standards. Shopping has been very difficult in the last few years, due to the fear of bomb blasts in markets and streets, as each group targets the other, depending on which area was last hit. In a recent attack, seven Christians were caught in a blast in a Christian district of Baghdad, Camp Sara.
As Paulos*, an Iraqi Christian community leader explains, “nowadays much shopping is done from the backs of trucks and vans, which go around to residential streets and people go out and buy what is available there. If the seller runs out of tomatoes, families go without, as it is too dangerous to go to the local market.” His point is well made: as we were talking on the telephone yesterday, a report came through of a bomb exploding in a food market in Dora. Ten more Iraqis who will never again go home to their families.
The cost of living in an Iraqi city is high, Paulos estimates that the average person needs at least $300-$400 each month to live on. “That’s if you have your own house”, he adds. “If you rent your accommodation, you need to find at least $200-$300 for rent alone”.
Christians left visible and vulnerable
Finding such sums is far from easy, with fewer and fewer jobs available to Christians. Working privately brings the risk of being mistaken by insurgents as a worker for a foreign company. This can lead to being kidnapped for ransom, threatened or even killed. Work within government offices is also hard to come by for Christians, as ministries have become the fiefdoms of the group in charge of them; Sunnis will employ their own people and Shia their own.
In these neighbourhoods even your name and appearance can reveal your religion. The militant gangs who roam looking for prey can easily identify Christians, many of whom stand out because of their fair complexion. Christians are left vulnerable to attack by any number of groups, whether religiously motivated Sunni and Shia militia, or gangs in it just for the money.
For some Christians, the nature of the work available to them brings inherent risks. Security firms are one of the few professions still willing to take on Christian workers. Khalil*, an Assyrian Christian, found work as a security guard protecting government property in 2006. His patrol was attacked by an insurgent group, leaving him too badly injured to work again. As the bread winner and main protector for his family, this was a double blow. He now lives as a refugee in Syria with his wife, children and elderly parents.
The places and personal circumstances vary each time - between June and August of 2006 reported Christian victims included a traffic warden in Baghdad, an engineer at a Basra power station, a shepherd tending his flock near Dohuk, and two furniture makers in Mosul - but the underlying factor behind the attacks is always the same. They are targeted because they are Christian; they are vulnerable because the need to work puts them in situations of risk; and they leave behind families who will struggle to survive without them.
Restrictions on movement
In Iraqi cities, neighbourhoods are being locked down into sectarian strongholds. Moving freely between areas is becoming harder, even for those who are neither Sunni nor Shia. These difficulties bring a new dimension of problems for workers, as professionals cannot get to their place of work, tradesmen cannot visit their customers, and passing trade for shops and stalls dwindles.
Neither safe nor sound
The home life that these dangerous jobs are paying for is far from comfortable or safe. Basic services have suffered in all the major cities. Water plants are a regular target for insurgents, so much of what water is received is usually not clean or hygienic enough to drink. Electricity supplies are infrequent, with few qualified electricians available to repair the damage caused to generating stations by years of neglect and compounded by frequent insurgent attacks. The few hours of electricity available to homes each day means that appliances such as fridges and freezers are now something of the past.
Danger stalks the communities lived in by Christians. This week alone there were reports of several attacks by Islamic militants on Christian communities in Baghdad, and in Mosul at least four Christians were killed by a gang of insurgents.
Stories of kidnap of Christians from their homes or places of work for ransom abound. Militia gangs see the Christian minority as a good source of funding for their activities. Ransom demands are often extortionate, but as time goes on kidnappers are becoming more willing to negotiate downwards, to sums that can realistically be raised in a short time. This indicates an opportunistic streak - gangs are happy to get what they can. The flipside is that they are putting a lower and lower price on human life. Whereas once they would have killed for lack of a few thousand dollars, now they will kill for a fraction of that.
An additional hurdle for Christian families in Iraq is ensuring that their children receive an education. Many families, especially those with young girls, will keep their children at home rather than risk them in the pursuit of an education. There are various sources of threat. In one area, where the Mahdi Army is active, students will be targeted for not wearing Islamic dress. Schools and universities have frequently been targeted for bombings, leaving many student too scared to attend. Others simply abandon their studies because of the need to work to support their families. This short-term need is jeopardising their long-term economic future.
Driven out of Iraq
The result of all these factors is that many Christians do not know where to turn. They need to work to earn money to survive. Doing so puts them at the mercy of the Sunni and Shia militia gangs, who have made it clear that they want the Christians out of Iraq. The home life they are working to preserve is unrecognisable from that before the fall of Saddam. Caught between a rock and hard place, those who can are choosing a third option; flight to safety. “Family life, as it was before the invasion, has changed dramatically”, says Paulos. “Christian houses have become open prisons, out of fear of indiscriminate bombing. These factors making leaving for Syria and Jordan more attractive prospects.”
* all names have been changed for the safety of the people involved.