By Marjan Golpira

The many challenges of assisting those affected by war

December 30, 2018

TEHRAN - Katrina Ritz, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq, describes the situation on the ground in Iraq “stable” but in need of much assistance.

I think what we often think is when the war is over, the situation becomes normal. But I think when the war is over we see how much humanitarian aid is needed.”
In her recent interview with the Tehran Times, Ritz said the ICRC closely follows a mandate that calls for providing assistance to “all affected, on all sides”.
The mandate, promoting the law, is based on the international humanitarian law and includes all victims of wars and conflicts.
Ritz also described tasks designated to the ICRC in details.
Following is the excerpt of the interview:

Q. How large is your delegation in Iraq, and how do you manage to stay safe in conflict zones?

A. I have been in Iraq in the past three years as the head of delegation. We, obviously, have a big delegation there, due to the size of the emergency that took place in 2014, and today we still have 11 offices all over Iraq. We are working with 1,100 Iraqi colleagues, and we have around 150 international delegates, too. We travel with our own cars, we don’t have escorts, we don’t have weapons in our offices, so we really try to base our security on acceptance within the communities.

The way we work is to have a dialogue with all parties of the conflict, even beyond Iraq. In Afghanistan, we held talks with the Taliban, but with them, we did not manage to have such a high-level dialogue. Our presence was limited in the area which was under the control of ISIS. This limited our support for a large part of the population who was affected by the humanitarian consequences of ISIS. Today, we have access to all of Iraq.

Q. Were you ever threatened by the terrorist groups?

A. We never got direct threats [from ISIS]; however, not having a dialogue also means that is difficult to understand our acceptance. No threat doesn’t mean that we are accepted.  However, we were not targeted. We could actually work in fairly safe conditions; but there is the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Q. Landmines left from Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in the 80s still take tolls in border areas;  painful stories that Iranians losing limbs in those areas emerge once in a while. Has your organization thought of a solution to rid Iran’s border of landmines?

A. Unfortunately, it is always a sad situation, because these are the mines that are dating back to the 80s. We don’t demine, because that is really the government’s job, but what we are doing is that we would do mine risk education sessions for schools, children, communities. We also do it with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. Now, the biggest problem is that you have to actually demarcate huge areas of desert that has different layers and so you have to be cautious about the area. One of the other challenges is that the climate is changing so you can suddenly have floods in these areas. With heavy rains in these areas there is possibility of landslide, which can move the landmines.

Now, in addition, you have much more weapon contamination in the recently affected areas of the conflict.  I remember Ramadi after the big fighting. When the army took back the town under their control, Ramadi was left with a lot of mines or booby traps, weapons, explosives, unexploded weapons, ordinances all around. I So to clear all these areas is quite challenging, because it uses a lot of human resources and technical expertise. At ICRC we are contributing to mine awareness and we have a team which is basically working for the humanitarian projects. When we went to the field, we have our own specialists who would go first to see if the area is safe, or when we would have rehabilitate water treatment plant, or health center, or school, we would first send in our team to make sure that it has been properly cleared, just to make sure that we don’t have an accident or we do not expose more contractors or families to more danger. Because Iraq has such a big problem with weapon contamination, some feel the priority is to clear the cities and villages first, so people can return back. And that is probably why Iran-Iraq border area has never been a top priority. Iraq has been in cycles of conflicts, it has rarely seen a stable moment since the Iran-Iraq war.

Q. Iraq has millions of displaced nationals. Just six millions were displaced when ISIS attacked the country. Based on reports, over 3 million have returned. The Iraqis who fled the country empty handed need ID documents, cash donation, shelter, etc. to return. What has your organization offered the Iraqis who are willing to return or have already returned?

A. It was a very fast paced displacement in Iraq. It was millions in a moment, but in parallel we also already had the return process going on. When the first areas were retaken by the government, people had started to return back and rehabilitation had already started there. We were always quick to assist. We provided material to the Iraqi Red Crescent, so they were on the frontline first, sometimes with ready-made food, and then we would help out in the back the camps. The United Nations or the other organizations who partnered up with the UN, they managed the camps and went on providing food and support on a monthly basis, because they needed regular support. When the return started, we also did the evaluation in the places or homes to see whether they have access to shops, to market and as soon as this is happening we started to give cash instead of kind. Cash is easier because you don’t have the logistics, obviously, but also it gives the family the freedom of choosing what is their biggest priority and what they need most at that time. For some families it might be food, other families it might be school fees or so on. So it gives them more freedom.

Q. Your organization also gets engaged in helping the families of ISIS-linked foreign fighters who are kept in detention. Could you elaborate on that and what the organization has done to bring these fighters back home?

A. We don’t bring foreign fighters home. In Iraq the foreign nationals are arrested or are in detention centers run by the government. They are primarily detained and then tried. We visit them. Some of them have small children, and also there are unaccompanied children whose parents were killed during hostilities, and for these children we try to locate their families. With unaccompanied children if there is legitimate family who will take them back we could repatriate them with their families, because these children are not detained and are victims in the situation.

For the fighters who are detained, some may be females. We look at their condition and try to establish the family links. If there is communication, we often do it with Red Cross massages. That was the case way back during the Iraq-Iran war, that we had exchanges of massages, so the prisoners can write on family matters. For children we try to reunify them with their families and find ways for their repatriation, because otherwise they’ll end up in orphanages in Iraq. These children often don’t speak English and some are very young and don’t speak at all.  We try to link their nationality to countries and families and families who search for their children or grandchildren. And that is a very time-consuming work. But we don’t repatriate fighters back home, it’s only their children.

Q. The non-profit organization, the ICRC, also assists Iraqis looking for missing family members in Iraq. Could you explain further how the organization goes about locating these missing people?

A. Missing family members involves a similar process; it is done mostly earlier. There are different ways when a person goes missing. It can be that the person is arrested, or has left for another country, or is dead or abducted and so on. The first thing we do is to get as much information as possible from the last scene where the person was seen, or arrested by whom, and so on. If we cannot find the person after visiting detention centers, we submit names to try to find them. We also have to check databases to see if the person in Iraq is now in a detention center in Syria. Then we can connect with our ICRC Syrian office for more information on him and that is how we connect our different operations. If the person is not found then he is a missing person. Missing persons and their families have needs and have the right to know what happened and where their loved one is. We can deal with death, we can deal with detainees, but when someone has not appeared that chapter always remains open for their relative.

Q: The situation in Iraq is getting better relatively, but a country that faced years of war under the Saddam Hussein regime, and then came the Iraq war, and later fell into the hands of ISIS, still suffers from tremendous humanitarian issues. Could you shed light on what your organization has taken up to aid the war-torn country?

A. I think what is really important at ICRC we are working with a mandate. And the mandate is not just to provide humanitarian assistance. We should provide help to all affected on all sides that is very specific and often very difficult to understand. They ask us how come you help terrorists. But we have a mandate to help all victims and we have also a mandate to promote the law, which is the international humanitarian law.

Q. Now that the terrorist group is defeated, have you been able to bring communities back together?

A. I think what we often think is when the war is over, the situation becomes normal. But I think when the war is over we see how much humanitarian aid is needed. Sometimes the need might be a little bit different, where at the beginning we distribute food and water, but at the end of the war it’s less the need of the people. What people need is may be to find their missing relatives. What the people need is to visit their people in detention centers. Detainees might need support of the authorities in detention, but the healing process after many decades of conflict is not easy. What we also try is to see different vulnerability of the families.  The destruction in Iraq and Syria is so massive that will take years to rebuild.

Q: The battle in Mosul was a landmark in fighting ISIS. How is the situation on the ground now?

A: When you compare Iraq today to hostile activities that were taking place before, it has definitely improved. The situation certainly has stabilized, but the question is more how the government will be able to support and address the needs of people who were affected by the war, and those who weren’t. including the people of southern Iraq who have been neglected for many years and the people of the Kurdistan region which observed a huge number of displaced people. We need to take their needs into consideration, too.

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