Iraq's City of Orphans

The world came to the rescue of the refugees on Mount Sinjar -- so why does it continue to ignore thousands more Iraqi minorities who face imminent threat of extermination by jihadists?

In northern Iraq, fighters from the Islamic State (IS) have besieged thousands of men, women, and children. For eight weeks, these people have been under daily attack and are now running dangerously short of food and water. They cannot get their elderly, sick, or wounded past the jihadist blockade -- and those who try to escape are often never heard from again. It is only a matter of time before they are overrun and massacred.

The world's attention has been focused on the plight of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, where the international community has mobilized to extract around 5,000 civilians under attack by Islamic State fighters, and President Barack Obama's administration has authorized airstrikes to rescue them.

But the plight I'm describing is in Amerli, a hardscrabble town of wheat and barley farmers located 200 miles southeast of Mount Sinjar, just outside of the city of Tuz Khurmatu. While the assistance from the international community and Iraq's Kurds has been largely successful in lifting the siege on the refugees on Mount Sinjar, nobody is providing assistance to the 12,000 Shiite Turkmen trapped behind IS lines.

This is Iraq's other humanitarian crisis, the one no one seems to care about.

Amerli lacks the drama of the Yazidi exodus to Mount Sinjar, but it is a bona fide humanitarian disaster. Its residents, 70 percent of whom are Shiites of Turkmen ethnicity, were persecuted by Saddam Hussein's regime for their Shiite identity -- and then attacked by al Qaeda in Iraq, the jihadist forerunners of IS, for the same reason. On July 7, 2007, al Qaeda attacked Amerli with 4.5 tons of explosives buried in a truck under a load of watermelons, killing 159 civilians and wounding over 350. Virtually everyone in the close-knit, multiethnic town lost a relative that day, making Amerli a city of orphans.

Now the latest incarnation of murderous jihadists is back to finish the job.

My connection to Amerli began with visits to the Tuz area before U.S. forces departed in 2011. I have been going back ever since, and have stayed in contact with people in the area, who are reaching out with ever greater desperation to tell their stories by cellphone, radio, and messengers coming and going by helicopter.

On June 20, 10 days after the fall of Mosul, IS fighters started to overrun Turkmen villages surrounding Amerli. By July 15, only Amerli was left unconquered -- the last bastion out of 31 Shiite villages in the area, cut off from an escape route to either the Shiite south or the Kurdish north. Since July 17, the densely populated town has received daily rocket attacks. The town's defenders, around 400 local men armed solely with AK-47s, have beaten off many IS attacks, including a daylong assault that nearly succeeded on Aug. 3.

Accounts of the suffering in Amerli are shocking. The jihadists cut power to the town on July 22, and the water aqueduct from the IS-held town of Suleiman Beg was shut down two days later. Sweltering in 120-degree heat with only a trickle of hand-drawn well water to sustain them, the town's old, sick, and young began to die. The sole junior physician and handful of nurses are operating under nightmarish conditions. The town has also begun to starve, both for lack of food and the depletion of cooking gas bottles.

The only way to get supplies into Amerli or to get the sick out is by Iraqi military helicopter, which comes twice a week. The single helicopter makes a 220-mile round trip from Baghdad, and can only bring enough food to provide a daily ration of less than one pound per family. To an even greater extent than Mount Sinjar, the flights into Amerli are hazardous: The small landing zone is under observation from IS positions just a mile away. Incoming helicopters are rocketed, sparking a mad dash each time one arrives. One Turkmen doctor recently told the story of how the 88-year-old father of a friend made it onto a helicopter, but was too frail to survive the flight and died en route to a hospital in Baghdad. Turkmen in Amerli also told me that a child -- one of around 7,400 in the enclave -- recently died on the landing zone waiting for her ride out.

Aside from these Iraqi helicopter airlifts, outside help has been minimal. Iraqi airstrikes have peppered IS-held villages in the area to little apparent effect; they only seem to be successful in prompting the jihadists to intensify rocket attacks on Amerli, apparently in revenge. The anemic Iraqi Army is stalled around 20 miles to the south at the town of Udaim -- only a half hour's drive away on a good day -- but has not made any headway in almost six weeks of inconclusive skirmishes. Shiite Turkmen militias from the city of Tuz Khurmatu, just 12 miles to the north, tried to relieve Amerli on Aug. 8, but were massacred when their untrained pickup truck-mounted fighters stumbled into an Islamic State T-55 tank just four miles short of the town's perimeter defenses, a fatal mismatch that resulted in 15 men killed and 59 wounded out of a force of 250 fighters.

The people of Amerli are reaching the end of their strength, and the Islamic State's jackals are waiting for their chance to overrun the town. Everybody there knows the fate of nearby Turkmen villages captured by the jihadists: When IS overran the Shiite Turkmen parts of towns like Tal Afar and Bashir it separated families, killed many of the men and boys, and took women and girls away to an unknown fate. In one compelling dispatch from Tuz Khurmatu, a man called Qassem Ibrahim Ali recounted how he sent his son, wife, two teenage daughters, and their 3-year-old to escape in their car. His daughters were returned amid a heap of decomposing corpses, and the others were not seen again. On Aug. 7, IS sought out survivors from those massacres at a Kirkuk refugee camp and hit them again with two car bombs, killing six and wounding 37.

These Turkmen ask why their traditional benefactor, Turkey, has apparently disowned them, why the Yazidis leap-frogged over them in the queue for urgent international relief, and why they are any less deserving of life than the other minorities U.S. aircraft are currently protecting with daily airstrikes.

The reality is that U.S. airpower and Kurdish forces, working with local Turkmen volunteers, could relieve Amerli in a day. The distance between Amerli and safety in the Kurdistan region is currently the same as the drive from the White House to the Pentagon. For U.S. protection of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar to be more than a stunt, Washington must extend its support to other minorities, especially if only a minimal amount of military support would be decisive, as is the case with Amerli.

On Aug. 13, in preparation for expanded U.S. military support to the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes emphasized that expanded intervention was necessary because "we don't believe it's sustainable to have permanent airdrops" of humanitarian aid.

If this is true in Sinjar, where around 5,000 people are waiting for U.S. and Kurdish forces to open up a humanitarian corridor or airlift, it is doubly true in Amerli, a hellish cauldron where 12,000 people are being starved and bombed by IS. 

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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The Cure for Ebola Is Accountability

Africa's Ebola outbreak isn't just a health care problem. It's also about a crisis of governance.

There was a tragic irony to the discussions in Washington last week between President Obama and African leaders. The meeting took place even as the Ebola virus was brutally exposing the lack of capacity, antiquated health systems, and dearth of governance in one corner of the continent. The outbreak is gathering pace. Over 1,000 people have now died in West Africa. Hospitals and health clinics are overflowing and anger is rising as dead bodies are being left to rot in the streets.

The governments in the region and the international community are finally getting serious about a coordinated response to Ebola. Sadly, however, these measures only treat the symptoms and not the causes of the problem -- which at their core are issues of corruption, mismanagement, and a lack of accountability of those in power to their people.   

There are parts of Africa that have made incredible progress in the past two decades. Think of Mozambique, where poverty levels have been cut by almost 15 percent since 1996. Or Senegal, where equal numbers of girls and boys are now enrolled in primary school. In Liberia, one of the countries worst hit by Ebola, successful elections have been held twice and economic growth has averaged over 7 percent in the past 10 years.    

The Ebola crisis is quickly exposing how rapidly progress can be undermined, however, when it is not grounded in a fair, inclusive social compact between governments and their citizens. It is no coincidence that, in the countries at the heart of the outbreak, large groups of people have been systematically excluded from power and decision-making at all levels for decades. This means many citizens are unwilling to believe that the government can serve their interests. The health system in Liberia is a case in point. Despite millions of dollars of investment in the decade before the Ebola outbreak, there were only 150 trained doctors in the entire country of 3.5 million people. As a result, access to services is inevitably exclusionary, lending itself to networks of corruption as patients do anything they can to receive care.   

In recent years, kleptocratic and nepotistic behavior by the ruling elites have led to long civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone; deep ethnic tensions, a coup d'etat, and civil strife in Guinea; and a low-level insurgency and the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria. These are places where the social fabric has been ripped apart, and trust between those in power and ordinary people is almost absent.

Sadly, by some measures governance in Africa is getting worse, not better. In 2009 there were 12 African states ranked in the lowest 30 countries of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index; last year this increased to 15 countries in the bottom 30 of the list. The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, awarded to democratic leaders of integrity in Africa at the end of their mandated terms, has only been awarded three times in seven years. The aid system has become part of the problem as African governments have often focused on international funding flows rather than efforts to generate the confidence of their own people.

There is a clear link between this governance failure and the current health crisis. In places where governments are so rarely willing or able act in the interests of their citizens, we can begin to understand why the disease continues to disseminate. Health services, which barely exist in many places, are shunned because the unsanitary conditions of hospitals and heath centers have made them hubs for the spread of the virus. Many hospital staff -- already underpaid and ill-equipped -- have become victims themselves. Foreign health workers sent to help are ignored and even chased away by scared locals. A group of Liberians explained to us recently that they think Ebola is a ploy by the government to steal even more money from Western donors.

As a result, the Ebola challenges are now evolving into larger problems of instability in the region. Economic activity has ground to a standstill as borders have closed, movement is restricted, and flights are canceled.  This is happening in countries where up to 50 percent of the population already earns less than 50 cents a day. Mistrust, misunderstandings, and ill-will are growing as people continue to die. In Liberia, the president has declared a national emergency and the vice president has stated that Ebola is threatening the progress made since the end of the civil war. The use of riot police to put down a recent protest against the government's failure to deal with the crisis does not bode well.

Public outreach campaigns, infection control measures, and coordinated international technical support will control the virus in the short term. But in the longer term, we must empower the governments and people of the region to build mutual trust with each other and get to grips with the corruption, mismanagement, and capacity issues that prevent effective management of these types of crises.

This requires support to ensure that laws against graft are enforced fairly and are matched with institutions mandated and resourced to do their jobs. The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), for example, has just two lawyers -- something that makes prosecuting corrupt officials extremely difficult.

Finding solutions also means encouraging administrative bodies to allow people to have a greater say in how they are governed. Decentralization -- delegating decision-making to local governments -- can help with this, as can processes like participatory budgeting where citizens can decide how public funds are spent. Finally, it requires a clear emphasis on funding for flexible, grassroots mechanisms for holding governments to account for the delivery of services.      

These kinds of prescriptions are difficult and time-consuming, and they rarely generate front-page news. But they can allow for a process through which governments in West Africa can begin to build the trust that is essential in times of emergency. This is the real cure for Ebola.