COVID-19 continues exacerbating the challenges already faced by the Nineveh Governorate. Lockdown restrictions have increased expenses and worsened living conditions. Militias continue as an unwelcome presence, and concern was raised that ISIS is using lockdown for recruitment purposes. Residents continue asking the question of whether immigration or returning home is preferable. From an investigative point of view, some argued that returning is necessary for holding those who committed genocide accountable.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that by the end of July, there had been 1061 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nineveh Governorate, with 355 still active and 43 fatalities. This represents a significant increase compared to the previous month. Most residents are mandated to take a COVID-19 test to pass through militia checkpoints, an expense of approximately $42 per individual. While not consistently applied, this cost is in addition to whatever type of financial exploitation or harassment already experienced by several residents when passing between different militias. "I think the checkpoints generally in the Nineveh Plains treat you based on your infection, but it is not easy to move around. Maybe the coming days will be better," says one resident.
A recent report by WHO explains how these challenges are made worse by COVID-19. "(Nineveh's) living conditions have worsened as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent containment measures, including lockdown."
These problems were echoed by many residents, several of whom point out that corruption remains a common thread. A Karamlesh resident shared, "the situation in the Nineveh Plains generally, and Karamlesh specifically, suffer instability and uncertainty. Everyone agrees there is a lack of improving the economy, security, and job opportunities. Also, everyone agrees on having bad public services and no electricity part of the time. Organizations did their part by doing relief, but protecting civilians from the militias is the responsibility of the government."
"There are two things that can be added to the sufferings this year," said a Qeraqosh healthcare worker. "All the world is suffering the pandemic, but we in the Nineveh Plains are suffering the pandemic in addition to a collapse of public services and the economy. There is no electricity, only 4 hours (on) some days. I believe the governments in Baghdad and Erbil agreed on corruption. Since 2014 till now, we couldn't experience a good day."
COVID-19 containment measures have hindered, but not fully prevented, counter-terrorism activities directed towards remnants of ISIS in Nineveh. Preemptive operations remain ongoing. A United Nations Security Report about the status of ISIS noted that the pandemic impacted the extremists' ability to travel. The report warned that ISIS "has had a captive audience during lockdown and if it has successfully used this for planning and recruitment purposes, it is possible that the easing of restrictions in non-conflict zones will see a spike in attacks once targets become available again."
The future role of the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS remains uncertain. The US has emphasized that the anticipated resurgence of ISIS has not materialized in Iraq. The US announced a change of role as the coalition draws down, and that the US will transition so that its primary concern is high-level advisory work. There are attempts at encouraging Iraq to take more ownership in efforts combatting ISIS.
Meanwhile, the question of immigration was once again on the minds of several residents. Some remain strongly opposed to immigration. A member of the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit shared, "I can see Christians can get their rights as immigrants in Iraq from governmental and non-governmental organizations as well. Actually, they got much more than what they lost. The only difference is that no one has enabled them to have a source of income. Government, churches and organizations gave them their daily bread, but none helped them to have their jobs again. But still, that's not a reason to leave your land."
Others disagree. "COVID-19 made the lack of healthcare, public services, ambulance, and emergency response clearer in Iraq," warns one local. "Much more clear than what we all know. After the declaration of liberation of Mosul, people are between two bad choices: staying in a country with no services and no security, or leaving to an unknown."
A report published by Aid to the Church in Need further highlights these differences of opinions. The report warns that unless Nineveh's security, infrastructure, and economic challenges are resolved, the Christian population in Iraq could fall to only 23,000 within the next four years. The report said that most Christians have considered leaving the country, and as many as 87% of the respondents feel unsafe. A significant disparity between how Muslim and Christian Iraqis view their personal security was observed. Nearly a quarter of the survey's Christian respondents stated that they had been negatively impacted by a militia, often citing their experience as falling within the categories of psychological trauma, displacement, theft, and threats of violence.
Observing the situation of Christians, a resident shared, "Christian immigration in Iraq started even before ISIS. We can't forget the hundreds of thousands who left Iraq after 2003 because Iraq does not have rules to protect humans, especially minorities. Violence was the promoted language by the governments who came after 2003. I am a Muslim, but I have lived with my Assyrian friends for many years. I think they don't deserve anything but peace. They are the best humans I have ever met!"
Investigative efforts remain challenged under the conditions of COVID-19. A mass grave was found near Mosul. It extended hundreds of meters and is believed to hold the remains of 600 Shi'ite prisoners executed by ISIS in 2014. Yet another grave, or execution site, was discovered in Sinjar. A Yazidi who returned home this month explained, "After I returned to the home, I cleaned it. While cleaning the bathroom, I saw the remains of a person in the sewage basin, and I think it belongs to one of the ISIS victims of the Yazidi genocide in 2014."
He continued, "I called the sub-district police station and informed them of what I saw. According to the Ba'aj Court order, the Talazir police station took the remains and sent them to the forensic medicine in Nineveh Province, then to the capital of Baghdad."
In both situations, the theme of return underscores how the graves were discovered. The Director of Yazidi Organization for Documentation explains how return and investigation are necessarily integrated. He stated, "Return is a positive and important thing for several reasons. Firstly, adherence to the land. Secondly, the protection of evidence. Thirdly, the protection of mass graves from tampering and sabotage."
He continued, "Fourthly, in order to compel the state to implement transitional justice measures for victims and their families, which include considered compensation, restitution of victims, reparation, and protection... holding the perpetrators accountable with the participation of victims and their families in the trial procedures that take place for those responsible. Return compels the state to take these steps."