COVID-19 has further restricted humanitarian access to the Nineveh Plains. ISIS attacks are frequent and life-threatening, though not as common as in Nineveh's neighboring governorates. Suicide numbers are reportedly rising within Yazidi displacement camps. Agricultural fires remain a threat for Nineveh's farmers during this season. Meanwhile, the pandemic has delayed the United Nations' investigation into ISIS's crimes.
Iraq had made a brief attempt at reopening portions of society following COVID-19, including the Nineveh Plains during the month of April. However, a resurgence of cases resulted in many restrictions snapping back. As of May 27, there were 35 new cases reported in the Nineveh Governorate. Stringent travel restrictions were recreated. The Director-General of Nineveh Health commented that many of these cases appear to have come from Turkey. He also stated that beginning in May, all tests for the virus will occur within the governorate. However, it is unclear what this statement means since tests were already conducted in Nineveh but were analyzed in Baghdad.
Improvements have reportedly been made by local Nineveh authorities regarding the free movement of farmers under COVID restrictions. One Qeraqosh farmer shares that, "we are on harvest time. The local government represented by the mayor are very cooperative with us on facilitating the harvesting process. The mayor had a meeting with all the truck drivers. He got in touch with every single one of them to follow up personally (about) all the processes and overcome all challenges and avoid any side problems."
For others, however, this experience means nothing within the broader picture. "It is an empty cycle to ask can the new government control the Shia militia!! It is similar to the question of does an egg came from the chicken or the chicken from the egg?!! This new government was formed by Iran in one way or another. Don't be deceived by shows; they are doing a great performance. Do you understand why I say it is an empty cycle? Because Kadhimi can never control his masters."
Nineveh Governor al-Jubouri announced that the virus and a lack of financial allocation from the Central Government's budget have stopped 820 service projects. These projects were intended to rebuild the infrastructure of the governorate, which ISIS destroyed. He also noted that archaeological restoration was entrusted to the Italians and included restoration of several destroyed churches. This was also stopped because of the pandemic.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a report that detailed how COVID-19 restrictions have further exacerbated the underlying problems humanitarian groups face when accessing the Nineveh Governorate.
The report explains, "Humanitarian NGOs in Iraq require access letters to allow them passage through the multiple security checkpoints which are present in areas where they operate. By the end of 2019, all access authorization letters had expired, as the previous system for granting monthly letters to NGOs--which had been in place for many years--was no longer endorsed by the Government of Iraq, and alternative modalities had to be found."
"In the interim period, there has been a proliferation of access authorizations required at the local level, which has led to an unpredictable and unreliable approvals system, where access could not be assured, and where project activities could often not be fulfilled... the impact of COVID-19 and the associated curfews and movement restrictions posed a difficulty for NGOs and some UN agencies in accessing cash and distributing cash-based assistance," the report continued.
A report released by the International Organization for Migration made a similar analysis. It stated that during the first quarter of 2020, humanitarian access significantly deteriorated in Iraq with a four-fold increase in high-severity districts. 67 percent of the districts within Nineveh reported medium access severity, with the remainder divided between high and low impact.
ISIS activities continued through the month of May, but at a lower level than Nineveh's neighboring governorates. The Iraqi Army launched Operation Desert Lions, intended to keep ISIS from penetrating governorates that border Syria. ISIS sabotaged three high voltage towers in Nineveh, and an IED wounded two employees at the Nineveh Electricity Directorate. ISIS also opened fire at a police checkpoint. These incidents all occurred near Mosul, and a military operation just south of the city was opened.
An Iraqi military spokesperson, Yeha Rasool, denied that ISIS remains a threat. He said, "Iraqi security forces, after defeating ISIS, intensified their intelligence effort and began preemptive operations and arrested many terrorist leaders and elements, as well as those who finance these terrorist gangs, especially in areas that were under the control of ISIS."
Operation Inherent Resolve issued its quarterly report and stated that the status of disputed territories, like Nineveh, create an unsecured seam between the Kurdish Regional Governorate and the Central Government. Areas around Mosul experienced frequent attacks. Overall, Nineveh experienced fewer attacks than several other governorates. Even so, the area remains insecure. 59 percent of current migration caseloads come from Nineveh, with most originating from Mosul, Sinjar, and al-Ba'aj, respectively.
The Yazidi community has expressed great sorrow over the apparent rise of suicides within their displacement camps. Data backing this claim is nonexistent since the Health Department does not keep track. Many of these reports come from NGOs, which state that both men and women appear to be impacted. A general practitioner at Yazda stated, "most of them are young women who suffered from trauma caused by the genocide. But there are also cases where domestic violence or honor issues within the family play a role. Staying at home due to the coronavirus outbreak most likely will make their situation worse. Tensions will rise when you are confined at home."
Speaking toward a possible solution, he added, "First, you have to make sure Yazidis can finally leave the camps and return to their homeland in Sinjar. Therefore, you need to provide security, stability and basic services such as water and electricity to the region. We need more government hospitals, schools and job opportunities."
A media appeal made by a Yazidi family also shows how desperate their situation remains. They had located their daughter, who was kidnapped by ISIS as part of the genocide. However, the family was told that they must 'buy her back' for a total of $20,000. Broken families and deep poverty remain one of the longer consequences left behind by ISIS.
Iraqi state media has made a policy of announcing the capture of high-profile ISIS members, but a mistake in one statement demonstrated the importance of accurate announcements. The Iraqi government had received into custody an ISIS member from Nineveh whose name resembled that of the current ISIS leader. A lack of clarity about who was detained created a myriad of rumors ranging from false hope to increased distrust of government institutions.
For example, one Christian who was displaced by ISIS shared that "a very concerning point is capturing all these leaders close to Mosul, geographically close to Christian areas. That is a plan to lead Christians to leave. There is no distance between those bad people and the Nineveh Plains. This is a bad sign for us as Christians."
Another said, "I am disappointed; I feel I am losing hope when finding out. There are too many leaders at ISIS. That gives me an indication that still there are too many of them. I feel like I can't be happy because whenever one of them has been captured, a successor appears."
"I was happy when I heard Qardash had been captured. This made me happy because the number of evil people decreased by one, and I am even more excited because he is an evil leader," said a third Christian.
Last summer, fires that targeted crops were a significant problem in the Nineveh Governorate. It was believed that many of the fires were started either by ISIS or PMF militias. This year, agricultural fires have been minimal but still remain a concern for local farmers. Many are seeing that several crop fires in Syria were allegedly started by Turkey. This worries Nineveh farmers, as Turkey is already active in Sinjar.
"There were some fire crops as last year, but not as much as last year, maybe because Iran is busy with many things. Turkey is hands-on (with) these fires as well, they get the benefit of exporting products and vegetables to Iraq," said one farmer.
According to investigators, COVID-19 has significantly hindered the progress of the United Nation's inquiry into ISIS's crimes. UNITAD's fourth annual report to the Security Council included a number of items that the virus has effectively delayed, leaving investigators to conclude "the implications of COVID-19, as well as the broader complexities of the political and security environment in Iraq, presented a series of challenges for the Team as it sought to deliver against the strategic priorities outlined."
The completion of a new set of excavations of mass graves near Mosul was delayed. The return of the remains of victims identified in mass graves located in Kojo was delayed. A number of forensic activities were also delayed, including the construction of a specialized forensic laboratory.
Some accomplishments were reported with regard to the organization and filing of evidence. The evidentiary data lake for the investigative team stands at 23.9 TB. The team announced that they have obtained 2 million call data records from Iraqi telephone service providers, which will help the investigation as it relates to Sinjar. However, it appears that these were obtained on the basis that they are "a potentially significant source of evidence," rather than a confirmed source.