For many, to consider Sinjar is to recall the massacre of hundreds of its residents, and the images of a town flattened by over a year of savage conflict. Six months after Sinjar was retaken from ISIL, the landscape is still bleak and broken.
The flags may have changed and the armed men patrolling wear different uniforms, but there remains a real danger of conventional and chemical mortar and rocket attacks from ISIL, just a few kilometres away. It is in these circumstances that we meet Chad Martin, a stocky American, happy and dirty after a day’s work. He wears a polo shirt tucked into his Carhartt jeans and a wide smile across his sunburnt face.
He’s not the type one would expect to bump into in a war zone. Martin arrived in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq more than a year ago, and spent eight months providing humanitarian aid at the Sangee IDP camp near Duhok. He is a volunteer with Plain Compassion Crisis Response (PCCR), an organisation founded by members of the Mennonite Christian sect in the US. Mennonites are conservative and lead a humble existence, determined to spread the gospel through deeds rather than words.
Martin met with local officials following Sinjar’s liberation in November, offering to help. “We just wanted to look and see the destruction, but they said we could move here. We jumped on it.” Soon after, Martin and three other permanent members of the group moved into a house in the centre of town. Without windows or doors, the group coped as best they could in the winter cold. But the sorry state of the building provided the initial inspiration as to how PCCR could help.
Martin admits to having had “not a lot of hope” for Sinjar, recognising the huge task ahead. But his own living conditions furnished him with a strategy – find home owners who needed help and register the proposed reconstruction with the Asayesh to confirm ownership. From there, the group would clean out the properties and replace windows and outside and bathroom doors.
To begin with take up was slow, but once word was out, things changed. “We don’t have to [find projects]. The people come find us,” Martin told Yalla while the group enjoyed a simple dinner. Success can be measured in numbers. In the five months since the PCCR first offered their services 473 buildings have been registered, of which 170 have been rehabilitated to some extent.
Windows, doors and related materials are brought down from Duhok by a local businessman who has a workshop next to the Mennonites’ home. The garden in front of the home is littered with bomb parts, and the area before the front door strewn with shoes. It is at once extraordinary and normal.
The workshop is an illustration of Martin’s insistence that help comes in the form of encouraging local business, and Sinjaris are employed to shape the large panes that are delivered as needed. “We are excited to see many families, many people coming back – seeing more people and more businesses supporting themselves instead of relying on the US and NGOs.”