Iraq: then and now.


Every day the news from Northern Iraq seems to get worse.  The militant Islamic group ISIL seem to be gaining more momentum as each day passes, spreading fear and carrying out horrific attacks as they push ever forward in their campaign to establish a strict Caliphate throughout this ethnically and culturally diverse region.


I feel extremely very lucky to have visited northern Iraq when I did - a mere two and a half years ago in February 2012.  The visit was memorable for several reasons, not least of which was the extreme hospitality with which we were greeted and the kindness of the Kurdish people.  Barely a day went past without finding that someone had paid for our food or drinks before we could or that we were invited to join total strangers over a cup of tea.

I traveled through the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan for about 10 days with another photographer/writer friend and a French film maker and came back with nothing but positive things to say about the region - how different it must be today, only a couple of years later.

One of the interesting and overriding messages that sticks with me was the fact that people in the region identified themselves not by religion saying I am a Christian, Sunni, Shia, Yazidi or any one of the other religious groups that can be found in the area - they considered themselves first and foremost to be Kurds and were very much against being characterized by religion.  Seeing the images on the TV each evening and reading the news online is very distressing - it's easy to dismiss this area of Northern Iraq as a disaster area but it's not the case.  The regional capital Erbil (also spelt Irbil, Arbil) is a thriving city full of modern amenities and at times you would be hard pressed not to think you were in a European city.  There are shopping malls, ice rinks, cinemas, playgrounds for kids and now to add to this there are refugees fleeing the seemingly unstoppable advance of ISIL.



Until several weeks ago, the Yazidi sect, an ancient esoteric and historically persecuted religious minority group concentrated in northern Iraq, was relatively unknown. But in recent weeks the entire world has been watching as this tiny group of less than a million people became the latest targets of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) extremists, who launched a campaign against “heretics” that resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of Yazidi men, women and children and the flight of tens of thousands more to arid Mount Sinjar, where their situation rapidly escalated to a humanitarian crisis.

The beautiful and tiny mountain village of Lalish is about 36 miles North East of Mosul in northern Iraq. It is the location of the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, the main figure of the Yazidi faith and is considered the spiritual home of the Yazidis.  It is appalling to think that this group of people who have been repeatedly persecuted for hundreds of years is once again on the run in order to escape the extreme brutality of ISIL.



Northern Iraq has already had it's fair share of bad times. the Kurds were notoriously persecuted by Saddam Hussein and now once again the region is in turmoil, this time because of religious differences.  Overseas forces ousted Saddam and after years of occupation left the region in a vacuum allowing movements such as ISIL to flourish.  Of course it's not just the Yazidis who being persecuted by ISIL - it's also any other religious group who does not adhere to their strict beliefs.  The historic Mar Mattai monastery, some 20km from Mosul, is administered by the Syrian Orthodox Church and home to a handful of monks.  I wonder what has happened to the smiling Abbot who greeted us so warmly and talked of the many times the monastery had been the subject of attack over the course of it's history