Erbil, Iraq – — Saja Gafar, a 7-year-old Shiite girl, recalls her home near Mosul, fondly describing the garden, the big tree in the yard, and her favorite playmates. Today, she’s lost it all, probably forever. Two months ago, her family fled the Islamic State, and now they live in a cramped tent in Erbil, sleeping on mats covering a dirt floor.
“Our home was better,” Saja tells me. “But the (jihadis) came, and they had beards. They kill people — they kill kids. They shoot a lot, and we’re afraid.” Saman Wajhadim, a 16-year-old boy who lives in the tent next door to Saja’s family, chimes in: “Before this, life was normal. We’d go to school, and we’d come home. Here, we don’t know about tomorrow. If ISIS stays in my area any longer, I think I will lose my future.”
For Iraq’s downtrodden citizenry, hope deferred hasn’t just made the heart sick; it also poses a real problem for President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The president relies on Iraqis (and Kurds and Syrians, for that matter) to provide the boots on the ground necessary to defeat the Islamic State.
But Iraqi adults have already spent their lives enduring war, displacement, violence and death. With this haunting experience, they watch with despair as fresh trauma turns their children into another lost generation. The United States made them grandiose promises of freedom, stability, democracy, and education for girls like Saja. And then we bailed, dashing their hopes and putting them in harm’s way.
Without seeing it firsthand, Americans will struggle to comprehend the desperation and hopelessness of Iraq’s 1.8 million refugees.
For them, airstrikes came too late — the Islamic State had already pillaged and burnt and bombed their homes, shot and beheaded and buried alive their relatives, raped and tortured their women and girls. The United Nations released a report Oct. 2 counting at least 9,347 slain Iraqis, in addition to 17,386 injured. Much of that butchery happened this summer.
Survivors fled on foot, watching their elderly and their infants and their wounded die on the escape routes. Some parents, who had too many children to physically carry, were forced into making Sophie’s choice about which of their little ones to abandon on the roadside. The Islamic State slaughtered or abducted some of the children left behind, while others died of thirst or hunger, totally alone.
The children who made it witnessed the horror. Some, like Saja and Saman, have adjusted surprisingly well. Others have not. I met a silent little Yazidi girl, not even 4, whose battered toenails cracked off as her impoverished family fled barefoot. She asks her dad when the Islamic States will return to kill her, too. I saw children terrified to let go of their parents’ hands. I watched a roomful of children listen rapt as a woman described how jihadis starved and raped her; after what they’ve seen this summer, sheltering these kids is totally moot.
Many men have signed up as volunteer forces, paying for their gear and guns out-of-pocket and promising to fight alongside the Kurdish peshmerga (literally “those who face death”). These men can’t help that the Iraqi army didn’t show similar courage. But despite their bravery, they know they’re outnumbered and out-armed, and they reasonably doubt the commitment of the United States and the international community. They’re willing to fight because they have to, but they long to immigrate.
So where does this leave Iraq? Well, its good people — the Christians, the Yazidis, moderate Muslims — increasingly feel broken. They see how the odds remain against them and in favor of the fanatics and psychopaths destroying their country. And they feel alone.
Charles de Gaulle would have understood their dilemma perfectly. France emerged from World War II heavily damaged, deeply factionalized, economically shattered and spiritually broken. (Sound familiar?) To restore France and build the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle understood he first had to restore the French soul. Hopelessness renders nation-building impossible.
Unfortunately, President Obama doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand how his lack of commitment created a power vacuum, and he doesn’t understand how Iraq’s current (preventable) tragedy has spiritually eroded its people.
Now, he’s engaged in half-measures, employing airstrikes that can take out big armaments and prevent further advances —but which cannot wipe out the Islamic State without ground support. Reluctant to use American soldiers, he makes even more demands of Iraq’s citizens. But to them, this looks all too familiar: What’s the point?
Jillian Melchior writes for National Review as a fellow for the Franklin Center and Independent Women’s Forum. Melchior, a former Detroit News intern, has just returned from reporting in Iraq.