A view of Sulaimania city, northern Iraq [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]
It took two planes, a road trip and a rinky-dink speedboat to get me to Iraq's Kurdish region in January 2003. It was the run-up to the US-led invasion. Journalists were competing to get in. But neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Syria weren't making it easy.
After a six-day wait in Damascus, I flew in on a rickety charter plane, landing in the border town of Qamishli; the rest of the journey was by car, past the oil rigs, and into Malakia; and finally, a speedboat across the Tigris River.
The assignment - gauge the mood in the run-up to the war.
"Nobody knows much about the Kurds," my editor had told me, flippantly. "Let's humanise them. Find out what they eat, whether they go to the cinema, what they think of the upcoming US invasion …"
I spoke to a cross section of Kurds, from shopkeepers in the bazaars, truck drivers, communists, former political prisoners, survivors of the 1991 gassing of Halabja, Peshmerga commanders to civil society activists.
Abdullah, a fruits and vegetables vendor at the Erbil bazaar, had told me back then: "We hope Saddam will be removed. Maybe then, the local government can focus a little bit more on our plight."
|Sulaimania bazaar [Tanya Goudsouzian/Al Jazeera]|
The optimism was unanimous. The US had to invade, Saddam Hussein had to go, and so did the crippling sanctions that had so cruelly impeded progress in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. For the Kurds, the war represented hope for a tantalisingly better future.
In Erbil, I interviewed Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In Sulaimania, I interviewed Jalal Talabani, leader of the rival party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The next time I visited Iraqi Kurdistan, in the winter of 2005, it was a time to build. Fortune was flowing into the region, mostly from the Gulf countries and Turkey. Kurdish-administered northern Iraq was a blank slate; and adventurous, far-sighted businessmen from around the world were swooping in.
"The Kurdistan region is open for business," KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told me in an interview in 2006.
There would soon be two new airports, several new housing projects, shopping malls, five-star hotels and Western fast-food chains. Still, in the midst of this investment frenzy, average Kurds endured hardships, such as regular power shortages, poor healthcare, an overstretched education system, and rents going up at a faster rate than public sector salaries.
I travelled back and forth for a few years, but I was most struck by what I noticed in 2010. It was weeks before the parliamentary elections, and the city was abuzz with rumours. Just a few months earlier, a new political party calling itself "Gorran"(Change) had emerged. It was the first significant newcomer on the Iraqi-Kurdish political scene, dominated for decades by the PUK and KDP.
Sulaimania is surrounded by mountains. We're buffered. If it weren't for the mountains, you'd probably hear the shelling.
The party capitalised on the economic stagnation and general malaise over a sense that Sulaimania was lagging behind the regional capital, Erbil, which appeared to be drawing the lion's share of foreign investment.
"Have you seen Erbil? How many skyscrapers they're building over there?" one young Sulaimania resident asked me. "They're finally building one here in Suly, but it's just one."
And so I went to visit the site of the city's first skyscraper, the upcoming Grand Millennium Hotel - a miniature replica of Dubai's signature Burj al-Arab. Proud residents of Sulaimania had already dubbed it the "Burj Sulaimania".
I followed with interest a year later, shortly after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Demonstrations erupted on the Kurdish street, too. Some claimed these were orchestrated by Gorran, for political ends; others said the protests were a genuine expression of public dissatisfaction with the regional government's failure to ease daily hardships.
Not much came of those protests, however. Kurds appeared unwilling to risk grappling with the post-Spring repercussions.
Last week, I got to return to Iraqi Kurdistan; my first trip back in five years. When I landed at Sulaimania Airport, security officers gave me an eye-scan and took my fingerprints on fancy machines. I remembered my first visit via speedboat, setting foot on muddy Kurdish shores in the cold of winter.
|Sheikh Jaffar, commander of the Peshmerga's 70th Brigade, speaks to Al Jazeera [Lara Fatah/Al Jazeera]|
A snazzy new jazz bar had just opened up at the upscale Copthorne Hotel. It was the place to see and be seen. There were also several Lebanese restaurants with sprawling gardens and outdoor seating; an Italian restaurant offering homemade gelato; and a dusty antique shop in an old Ottoman-era home that had been converted into a trendy eatery.
On the face of it, there was little to suggest that the region's revered Peshmerga were fighting yet another existential war only 60 kilometres away; not against Saddam's army, but against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"Sulaimania is surrounded by mountains," a well-placed security source told me one evening, over tea on his porch. "We're buffered. If it weren't for the mountains, you'd probably hear the shelling."
With much of the construction nearly complete, Erbil now boasts a skyline fit for any self-respecting Gulf country. High-end housing complexes, a sushi bar, franchise fast-food restaurants, such as Hardee's and KFC, shops and international chain hotels, such as the Rotana and Divan, with the Marriott and Hilton soon to come.
But the city's spectacular skyline belies the recent regional developments that have essentially turned it into a ghost town. Its pavement cafes, restaurants and ritzy hotels were once full of foreigners and expatriates. But the ongoing war with ISIL has spoiled investor appetites. The five-star hotels now cater exclusively to the few security and NGO types who have not vacated.
"If only you had come back a year ago, and then you'd have really seen something," one local businessman, who owns a popular cafe, a shopping mall and a hotel, told me. "Things were different. Things were moving. And then ISIL happened."
In contrast to all the flashy consumerist additions to the region, Iraq's Kurds appear to be in a state of suspended animation. The hope of 2003 has been replaced with trepidation. If yesterday everything hinged on the removal of Saddam Hussein, today, everything they achieved hinges on whether or not their leadership can maintain a semblance of unity and hold the line against ISIL. Or else, all will come undone.
"We're just waiting now," the businessman told me. "Maybe it will pick up again when the war is over."
Tanya Goudsouzian is a media professional with extensive experience in post-conflict countries.
Source: Al Jazeera
This month we rolled out a new campaign to help us with the ongoing costs of supporting upwards of 600 refugees that reside in one of our 5 micro camps. If this is something that grips your heart, please donate today and help us help the Iraqi people "for such a time as this."
Not many Americans would willingly uproot their family to move to one of the world’s more dangerous and remote corners. But, Billy (BA ’95) and Dawn (BSEd ’98) Ray feel their calling so deeply that they couldn’t imagine not living in northern Iraq, where they have served with World Orphans since 2008.
The Rays — Billy, Dawn, and their three sons — live in a region of northern Iraq known as Kurdistan. There, ISIS is far more than a news story about a sinister organization far away; it’s a real and present threat. That threat has chased nearly 500 refugees out of their homes, leaving everything they know behind — and into the welcoming arms of Billy and Dawn Ray and their colleagues from World Orphans.
The organization, which Billy serves as Middle East director, is a ministry built to serve orphans — individual children, not dozens of families. But despite a total lack of experience running camps of this size, the Rays and World Orphans saw the need before them and acted. They now operate multiple sites housing fleeing families, working daily to meet the needs of approximately 500 refugees.
Fittingly, the place they first housed the families was already known as “The Refuge.” After moving to Iraq, the Rays have worked with World Orphans to build a community center that would provide services and a place to care for the entire community, complete with event halls, meeting rooms, a playground and more. What they couldn’t have foreseen was that naming the center “The Refuge” would prove prophetic, as it became the first location that refugees fleeing ISIS found shelter. Because the center and grounds had been built and developed, World Orphans had a place to welcome the refugees the moment they heard about the need.
The Rays and their fellow workers continue to adapt to the refugees’ ever-changing needs, growing along with the people they serve. Although the challenges they face are new on a daily basis, ministering to the needs of others has been a way of life for the Rays since their days at Baylor. Fittingly, though, they didn’t actually meet on campus; they met in Turkey, where both were serving on mission trips (and where they lived for several years before moving back to the United States and then to Iraq).
In February, Billy visited Baylor to speak at chapel, where he impressed on Baylor students the importance of Jesus’ challenges to us. “Anyone who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple,” said Jesus — a charge the Rays have made the cornerstone of their ministry.
Sic ’em, Billy and Dawn Ray!
There are over 3,500,000 IDPs alone in Iraq today... that's not even taking into account the number of refugees from Syria. This equates to hundreds of thousands of children not being able to take the next step in their educational development.
In some cases, children can join in with local schools, but language difficulties, location, and just sheer numbers prevent a viable pathway back to normal life for the majority.
The Refuge Initiative seeks to build communities of hope, and at it's very core knows that the education of the youth is in many ways the answer to their futures.
This past summer we opened the doors of The Refuge community center to over 150 school aged children who missed school almost entirely last year due to the raging conflicts in the region. These Yazidi and Shabak children are now getting a chance to reintegrate into the community and reboot their educational paths with the strong hope that it will change their futures.
Here are some of the kids at our new refugee school.
Please take a moment and pray for each of these kids that now attend our refugee school at the Refuge.
And pray for our teachers!
Also, take a moment and check out this great video on the crisis of education in the Middle East:
When I went home in February to share of all that the Lord had been doing in Iraq since ISIS emerged, God began implanting in my heart a broader vision for our work. At that point, we had just finished the Community Center, the Refuge, and continued to house and care for 20 refugee families in a camp on our property.
From February till the end of May we acquired 3 large properties and built 5 separate camps on them that we've named: Project Akoyan, Rwandz Camp, and the Kawlokan Village for the 3 main areas in which they are located.
Our first, Project Akoyan, involved our most basic camp with about 100 Yazidis, our second hosts nearly 300 Yazidis in semi-permanent dwellings, while our third consists of actual homes for 200 Yazidis and Shabaks.
The speed at which all this happened was simply dizzying, defying the "slow build" of our previous 6 years in Iraq, that told us, "Maybe God is up to something here."
A vision was planted and took root in my heart during this time to develop micro-camps back in February, and in just a few months, the vision had become a reality.
The reason this vision is so important is because we are dealing with the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII. Millions upon millions are living in refugee camps today that squash individuality, encourage dependency, and harbor, even enforce indignity. What will become of these millions of children, in particular, as they grow up in such environments?
We've got to do something. What we've come up with is The Refuge Initiative.
The Refuge Initiative is a special division of World Orphans seeking to tackle the massive refugee crisis we are seeing in the Middle East today.
Our vision is to build micro-camps that foster autonomy, encourage dignity, and provide pathways to return to normal life. Larger camps are just unable to give refugees and IDPs that proper sense of community and belonging. By building micro-camps and allowing local leaders to govern them, we enable dignity, build autonomy, and get people back on the pathway of normal life in ways larger camps can never do.
Now, in addition to World Orphans vision to provide holistic care to children worldwide, we are actually building communities of hope through The Refuge Initiative.
Join with us in tackling the largest humanitarian crisis in our world today. Join: The Refuge Initiative!
The Shabaks are among some of the smallest minorities in all of Iraq. They mainly live in the Sunni areas of Northern Iraq, though historically following the Shiite branch of Islam and numbering less than 50,000 in the whole country. Because they are Shiites they were immediately in the cross-hairs of ISIS as it plowed it’s way through Mosul and the surrounding villages.
The Shabaks knew that they were next, and with the help of a tip off from a neighboring friend they fled into the Kurdish autonomous region not 2 hours before ISIS militants invaded their village.
They found their way to the mountainous region of Soran and rented a small apartment building for the 20 families from their village before realizing they’d been so close to being another casualty in the ISIS assault. Within weeks, however, they weren’t able to pull together enough money to pay for an additional month of rent. So, they reached out to the local municipality, and the mayor subsequently reached out to us.
We were ready to help with land that the government had already placed in our care to build the Refuge Community Center 6 years earlier. Nearly the entire complex had been completed except for one quarter of an acre that we were waiting to turn into a children’s park. Well, the children’s park would have to wait for now.
When we heard about these 20 Shabak families plight, we kicked into high gear on the 2nd of September 2014, levelled the land, hauled in rock and gravel, put up tents, hooked up the electricity, and by the 9th all the families moved in with smiles on their faces. Having lost nearly everything they owned, it was all a shock to us to see them express with thankful hearts their gratitude for the new “homes” we were able to provide them.
But, that’s not the end of the story… 8 months later, we were able to build each of these families their own permanent home in a place we’ve named the Kawlokan Village. Now, they are on the road to rebuilding their lives in a new land.
Here's a photo of the day we chose the land for the village:
... and the progress:
If you’d like to learn more, check out our new website at: http://therefugeinitiative.org
The column of escaping women appeared on the hillside as the sun was starting to sink in the sky. There were 21 of them, from babes in arms to the middle-aged, and they had been dodging Islamic State patrols from three o’clock that morning.
For Ibrahim Mirza, the Iraqi police officer who was waiting for them on the mountain in his Kia Sorento car, it was a bitter-sweet moment. Among the group were his mother, one of his teenage sisters, and a baby niece. Until that afternoon, when his sister managed to get a phone call through to him, he had not known whether they were alive or dead.
“I was so happy to see them," he said. But he was still fearful; he did not yet know what had happened to them in the weeks they had been missing. Moreover, there were just these three: there was still no sign of his father or the twenty or so other members of his immediate family who had been kidnapped by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant three weeks before.
He piled all 21 women into and on to his Kia, and set off up the hill away from the front lines. “There are still dents in the roof,” he told me.
Farida, 18, and her mother Zuhra, in a tent near a refugee camp in Ba'adre, Iraq, Aug. 2015. Holly Pickett
On August 3 a year ago, Isil jihadists swept across the Nineveh plain into the towns around Mt Sinjar, in north-west Iraq, the homeland of the Yazidi people.
The Yazidis were previously known, if at all, as an exotic bunch, a minority even among the Middle East’s patchwork of sects: based on Zoroastrianism, their faith involves the worship of a “Peacock Angel”, called Malek Taus.
To Isil, they are at best pagans, at worst, devil-worshippers, and according to its ideology, that means its men can be killed and its women seized and forced into sexual and other servitudewith impunity. This is what Isil did to tens of thousands of the Yazidis, including the Mirza clan.
They were taking the girls to a “sorting ceremony” , to be assessed for prettiness, and sold
But the Mirzas are fighting back. While the story of the Yazidis is one of unremitting horror, it is also one of resilience.
In the last few months, a quiet project run by volunteers, smugglers, community leaders and the government of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of northern Iraq has set up rat runs for the thousands of people still held as hostages - or worse - by Isil. Gradually, Yazidis like this family are coming home.
In Mr Mirza’s case, the family reunion began with his sister, Farida*, and her charge up the mountain.
The night before, she and the 20 other women and girls had been taken from the temporary prison where they had been held and stuffed into the back of a truck, on their way to one of Isil’s grotesque “sorting ceremonies”, a military victor’s version of a beauty pageant. The women were to be assessed for prettiness and distributed - sold - into slavery.
Ibrahim Mirza with some of the boys he led out of captivity, in Ba'adre, Iraq, Aug. 2015. Holly Pickett
During the night, the truck came to a halt. In the silence, the women looked out, and saw nothing. Farida thought perhaps the driver had simply stopped for a rest. “Maybe he had fallen asleep,” she said. “We didn’t know, but we ran anyway.”
They sought refuge in some nearby houses owned by Arab families - a big risk, given that in some of the surrounding Arab villages sectarian feelings run so high that the locals have sided with Isil rather than their old Yazidi neighbours. Luckily, the women found help.
For the rest of the day, they ran from cover to cover, gradually getting closer to the looming presence of Mt Sinjar above. There lay safety.
They lined up thousands of men by the roadsides and shot them down
It was less than two weeks since Sinjar had become, briefly, the most famous place in Iraq. While the jihadists rounded up the residents of the surrounding villages, lining up thousands of men by the roadsides and shooting them down, many others fled up the hill.
There, helicopter pictures beamed round the world showed tens of thousands of people clamouring for help, in some cases dying of thirst before the world’s eyes in the harsh summer heat. Temperatures at this time of year are regularly above 110F (45C).
Yazidi people rush towards an aid helicopter, 2014. RUDAW
Eventually, a Kurdish militia from the other side of the Syrian border, which runs to the mountain’s west, came to their rescue, fighting an exit path through Isil lines and leading them down. It turned the mountain from a hell to a haven, one which Farida, her mother Zuhra, and the others were able to exploit.
For Mr Mirza, it was three down, but many more to go.
The treatment of Yazidi girls under Isil rule has been widely recorded - partly by Isil itself, in articles explaining how in its view rape is compatible with Islamic law, or Sharia.
An article in Isil’s online magazine, Dabiq, said, “After capture, the Yazidi women and children were divided according to the Sharia amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated." The article went on to use the traditions of the early Islamic conquests to justify taking polytheist captives into sexual slavery.
“There was nothing they did not do to us”
The abuse is unremitting, and it started as soon as they were taken, according to Farida and one of her cousins, Marwa*. “There was nothing they did not do,” said Farida. Both girls are just 18.
Farida does not go into detail, at least not in front of strangers and her father, Mustafa, who is present. She speaks fluently, often breaking into laughter that is betrayed as hollow only when she looks away.
Marwa, on the other hand, shakes as she speaks.
She was initially held in a large holding cell and “everything you can imagine” was done to her. “Many of us were beaten and hurt in many ways,” she says. “I wanted to die”.
After ten days, she was taken to the Syrian town of Raqqa, Isil’s de facto capital, having been bought by a family there: an Isil fighter, his wife, and two children.
Although young and pretty, she was not used for sex by this fighter, she says, but as a household servant, mainly cleaning.
She was not allowed out of the house at all; but apart from the raw fact of her servitude she was not badly treated, including by the fighter, she said, and in fact owed her freedom to his wife.
The Kurdish government paid $3,300 US to buy her back
She eventually took pity, telling Marwa she should be with her family. She found a middle-man to sell her back and drive her to safety. The Kurdish government paid the $3,300 US and Marwa was driven to the nearby Turkish border, and then back to Iraq, arriving after four days of travel last November.
As in Farida’s case, there were tears as well as joy in her return. She found three of her brothers. Of the fourth, and of her father, there was and remains no news.
ISIL fighters during a parade in Raqqa, Syria, 2014. Raqqa Media Center via AP
The day the jihadists came had been a desperate one for Ibrahim Mirza and his wife, Zuhra*. Like other families, they had tried to escape as Isil swarmed into Sinjar, the biggest town in the arid foothills of the mountain that is at the centre of the Yazidis’ homeland.
But Isil had stopped their vehicles and told them to go home. They had no choice but to obey.
Outside the town, people were not even given that choice: it is now estimated around 5,000 men were massacred on the district’s roadside, 1,600 on that first day.
The first mass graves are now being exhumed in liberated areas.
Later, the family was brought to an administrative centre in Sinjar to be imprisoned, in separate rooms for men and women. Samira*, their 16-year-old, was taken away. “They saw her and said, ‘OK, give her to us’. I was crying and trying to refuse but they took her anyway,” said her mother.
Marwa, 18, outside a tent near a refugee camp in Ba'adre, Iraq, Aug. 2015. Holly Pickett
Mr Mirza and the other men and boys were held for two months, after which he was set up in a house near the city of Tal Afar. Mr Mirza was set to work as a shepherd, and his one remaining daughter returned to him.
It is a characteristic of Isil that, once it has murdered and raped its way across conquered territory, it tries to establish a new rule of law. Farmers in the area describe how inspectors arrived, dictating details of the practices they were to follow, down to the exact prices they were allowed to charge for their wheat and tomatoes.
Finally, they reached the front and made a run for their lines
This appeared to be the role they now had in mind for Mr Mirza’s decimated family, a normal life on the land, but obedient to Isil’s will.
Tal Afar is well behind Isil lines, and until April they lived a strange, dislocated normality, not allowed to travel but otherwise just working and keeping house.
Mr Mirza decided to organise an escape attempt. He had a phone, and was able to call a brother who served in the police in Kurdistan, who hired local smugglers as guides.
Displaced Yazidis settle in abandoned houses in Mount Sinjar, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said
One night, 33 people from several families made a dash for it, with Mr Mirza and the smugglers at their head. For three days, they made their way 45 miles across country, walking by night and hiding out in abandoned houses when it was light, circumventing Isil checkpoints.
The most difficult thing, he said, was keeping the children from making a noise when Isil fighters were nearby. The group had taken no supplies so as to travel light, but it was hard going in the thirst of an early summer heat-wave.
Finally, they reached the front. He was still in touch with his brother, who had warned the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, to expect them and not open fire. They made a run for their lines.
“Life could begin again,” he said.
The Yazidis have a reputation for honour killing
That is true, up to a point. Most of Mr Mirza’s family is now with him. They have been given a house next to one of the sprawling refugee camps that are now dotted across the baking hills of Iraqi Kurdistan.
There the Yazidis and Christians, driven out of the Nineveh plains at the same time, survive on small food hand-outs until they can somehow return home or find permanent asylum elsewhere.
The Yazidis follow conservative social customs and they have a reputation for honour killing - especially for women who try to marry outside of the sect.
Their religion, though, is generous and open, welcoming all-comers to visit its holiest place, the temple of Lalish, still under Kurdish government control in the hills near the city of Dohuk, north-east of Sinjar.
In the cool of the temple, followers hang knotted scarves, each knot representing a wish. Yazidis have been coming here in droves since last August, seeking refuge and solace, and in some cases to wash away their pain and shame
Lalish temple, near Shekhan, Iraq, Aug. 2015. Wishes are represented by fabric knots tied to the pillars. Holly Pickett
The spiritual head of the Yazidis is known as Baba Sheikh, and he made a key intervention on behalf of his people, one that may seem obvious to outsiders but has meant enough to his followers for several to mention it.
He gave a speech in which he said anything that happened while under Isil oppression should be regarded as not having happened. By this, he meant both forcible conversion to Islam, and matters concerning women's "honour", allowing abused girls to be welcomed back into their families and communities without shame.
She was being held east of Mosul with five other girls
This is a great comfort to Zuhra, the mother of the family. But it only goes so far: it will not bring back the 12 brothers and nephews she has lost.
Nor will it bring back her daughter Samira.
The family know where she is. For a while, she was able to get messages out on a mobile phone that she had hidden. She was being held, she said, in a house in the once-Christian town of Qaraqosh, east of Mosul, along with five other girls. She spent much of their conversations crying.
The Yazidi spiritual leader Baba Sheikh in Dohuk, Iraq, 2014. Emrah Yorulmaz/Getty Images
They haven’t heard from her in several weeks aside from one call three weeks ago, which she made on an Isil phone to commence the bartering process.
The going rate is normally $3-6,000 US for the return of a girl, but she had been told to ask for 15,000; right from the start, she was singled out for her good looks, her father said.
“She has told us she is not in good health,” Mr Mirza said. “We do not really know how she is, or what has happened to her, but she has not been well treated.”
What is the future for the Yazidis? Some of their territory has been recovered, with the help of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the PKK, the guerrilla group, and of US-led coalition air strikes. But these forces have not been able to clear more than a quarter of Sinjar town, and the battle lines have been stuck for several months.
Khanke refugee camp for displaced persons, including Yazidis, in Nineveh governate, Iraq, Aug. 2015. Holly Pickett
At least 400,000 Yazidis are displaced, from a total population in Iraq of 600,000. In all, there are two million refugees from the war.
There are few social services, not least for the traumatised girls. For all her smiles, Farida, the teenager who made it up the mountain with her mother, has tried to slit her wrists. She is embarrassed as she shows the scars.
On their hillside, with nowhere to go, the family nonetheless say there is no going back either. There is a determination, that in the middle of the horror, human values and relations come before anything else, even their land. History, in any case, has been lost behind a veil of brutality.
“We don’t want the past back,” Marwa said. “We don’t even want our land back. We just want our prisoners back.”
*The Mirza family agreed to be photographed for this story, but The Telegraph has changed their names.
Read more from the Telegraph's Foreign desk
Find more in-depth articles at Telegraph.co.uk/longreads
Before we finished Project Akoyan, another 50 Yazidi families came to our attention who were about to be kicked out of the dwellings they were staying in. Not too far from the Akoyan valley stands the main city of Rwandz. It's one of the main municipalities in our region, though also the smallest.
Rwandz is well known for it's tourist destinations, massive gorges, beautiful mountains and colorful history.
Two huge resorts crest it's mountains and an entire 'holiday village' sits nicely above the town. It was in this rapidly developing 'holiday village' that these Yazidi families had found some shelter in it's incomplete houses. But, now that the winter thaw had commenced and spring had begun, the general contractor, understandably, wanted to get on with his work and finish out the homes.
He contacted the local mayor and the local mayor made us aware of their predicament.
After looking all over Rwandz for some even slightly level ground to begin another camp, we stumbled upon the large football [soccer] stadium at the very back of the holiday village. It looked like it hadn't been used in years, and had several acres of land, nicely fenced in, and more importantly level.
Rwandz is a city that cannot grow another hand breadth. I remember meeting the mayor of the town back in 2010. He told me that he'd just been selected to be mayor moving back from the States where his family still resides. The home he was building for himself was miles away from Rwandz, so I asked him, "Why way out there?" He told me that the Rwandz municipality couldn't even find a place to build him a house so crowded was the city and that was 5 years ago. Many more homes have etched out a place on mountainside since then, but only just barely.
So, when we found actual 'flat land' in Rwandz, we were thrilled.
Here's a pic of the land as it looked in late March.
As with our other camps, we didn't wait for the grass to grow beneath our feet, we dove right in the very next day.
The first week of construction, or should I say excavation and rock dumping went by with a blur, but the weather was not helpful bringing frequent rains that put many of the dump trucks and even the grader deep into the mud.
We learned a lot about letting mother nature have her way and just stop to let things dry out a little. But not after getting 3 of our vehicles completely stuck.
There was an area at the 'bottom' of the land, in particular that ended up needing over a meter of rock and boulders to maintain a level lie of the land at a cost we certainly weren't expecting. Fortunately, for us a contractor a few blocks away from stripping away the land and let us have all the rock we needed for free. Still, the hundreds of dump truck loads of rock we laid for this camp left us reeling. At one point we had 9 dump trucks employed at the same time, dropping their loads one after another after another for 3 straight days.
The rock 'quarry' where we got the bulk of our rock for the foundation of the camp.
Here was a pic of my son Andrew standing in one of the ruts that the grader had formed while trying to get unstuck.
Throughout the construction process the Yazidi families who were staying in the unfinished holiday village just a couple blocks away would come by and offer their support and/or 'gentle suggestions' on how they'd like the camp to look. It was great that we could do it all together.
We split the camp into two long rows with an open space between for their vehicles and 'run around' space.
At times the weather would clear and we'd be enveloped into the vibrant colors of spring.
Just over a week after we began excavating the land, the dump trucks hauled in the cinder blocks to build the kitchen/bathroom/shower facilities.
We chose our design of these buildings after a careful discussion with the Yazidis themselves and a look at a nearby UN camp in Basirma - a hours drive west of us.
Each unit has two kitchens for two families with one shared bathroom/shower unit. It also required the building of 4 main septic tanks. The roofs are made from sandwich/insulated aluminum panels.
Here's Tim, my faithful colleague in the work putting some skin into the game quite literally.
The refrain, "Just one more load of block cement," was heard again and again it seemed.
This is Hersh, our general manager, the "fixer" on our team and the one who puts it all together. Without him I'd be completely lost. Hersh you deserve a vacation a trillion times over. Thanks for all your hard work!
Before long we were able to start pitching tents... in the rain. Thanks guys!
And finally with a little bit of fanfare, the Yazidi families moved in one month after we began construction.
Here I am with the new Mayor of Rwandz and his security detail.
Finally, it looked like this.