Sunday, August 10, 2014

Once upon a time in northern Iraq

A peaceful day on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.
Herons soared overhead as our little flotilla made its way slowly down the Tigris, their calls echoing off the rocky cliffs towering on one side of the quiet river's banks. On the other bank, dry and golden as the summer came to an end, fishermen dawdled in front of their lean-tos, shepherds tended their flocks, and women and children toted loose armloads of firewood. When we stopped to camp for the night, camouflage-clad peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters) dropped by to peer curiously at our handmade vessels, smoke cigarettes, and pose for photos with the foreign visitors.

Mosul, not far to the south, was already too dangerous to include on the route when I joined the Tigris River Flotilla for part of its journey down the ailing waterway last fall, and bridges crossing the river were tightly controlled in an attempt to staunch the flow of refugees from neighboring Syria, at some points just 10 kilometers away. But northern Iraq seemed largely peaceful and increasingly prosperous; its rural countryside and bustling cities both felt far removed from the conflicts raging all around.

Peshmerga in repose.
Just over eight months later, the Islamist militants known as ISIS had seized Mosul, sending half a million people fleeing into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The city of Duhok, where we had strolled around a lively amusement park, was receiving victims of the fighting for medical treatment. The partner of one of the flotilla participants was missing, first thought dead and then later reported to be a captive of ISIS. And the peshmerga who had idled so casually around our campsite were battling fiercely to repel the intruders. (As I write this, ISIS, now re-branded as the Islamic State, is reportedly at the doorstep of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and a refugee camp is being built in Fishkabur, the then-sleepy town where we had our base-camp.)

Within a few short weeks, though, the world's attention and outrage moved swiftly to the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, and then to the violence in Gaza. Meanwhile, long-suffering Syria endured the bloodiest 48-hour period in its ongoing civil war, with more than 700 people killed in two days. One in three families in the Central African Republic have now lost at least one family member to the sectarian fighting there.

It's hard to keep all of these developments in focus, much less mentally or emotionally absorb the human suffering they entail, at least not without slipping into despair. And yet the voices on the Internet keep crying out: "Why aren't you tweeting on Gaza?!?" "Have you forgotten about Syria??" "Why aren't ____ talking about ____?! It's because they're [anti-Semitic / Islamophobic / racist / ignorant]!!!"

Shepherd by the banks of the Tigris.
Amid the tragedies clamoring for attention, I know that I will click to news about Iraq more quickly than to many other stories because of my experiences so close to the area now in turmoil, and to stories about Syria in large part because its refugee crisis is so visible on the sidewalks right outside my door in Istanbul. Having witnessed the passion of Turkish people taking to the streets last summer made it all the more wrenching to see their counterparts in Kiev cut down by police bullets in February, much in the same way as runners around the world mourned the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, relatively few in number though they were.

As frustrating as it may be for people trying to draw focus to a crisis they feel is being overlooked, it seems only natural to be more readily able to empathize with places or people with which we feel a connection. It may even be a positive thing, if it keeps some people's attention focused on a particular place or issue when the rapid pace of the news cycle causes others to pivot away. A more selective focus may also play a self-protective role by keeping us from being too overwhelmed by all the world's woes to do anything about any of them at all.

The danger, it seems, comes if our connection with one place or group of people blinds us to the plight of another; if we become so embittered by the indignities and abuses "our" side has suffered that it no longer seems appalling to turn around and inflict something similar. We are seeing the bloody results of that kind of loss of empathy every day.