North Africa, West Asia

BBC’s documentary on the Iraq war overlooks genocide

BBC’s documentary 'Once upon a Time in Iraq' ignores the decimation of the Christian and Yazidi communities.

Elizabeth Monier
Elizabeth Monier
22 September 2020, 12.01am
Iraqi Yazidi refugees in Newroz camp in Al-Hassakah province, north eastern Syria after fleeing Islamic State militants. 13 August 2014
DFID - UK Department for International Development / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The BBC’s recent documentary 'Once upon a Time in Iraq' is wonderfully made. The interviewees are edgy and articulate and the weaving of personal testimony with fascinating footage is provoking and engaging. However, with the end of the fifth episode entitled ‘Legacy’ and of the series, I was left stunned that a major part of the story was entirely airbrushed out of the sleek narrative.

If the purpose of the documentary was to reveal the arc of the consequences of the 2003 invasion, it missed a crucial point. In August 2020, just weeks after the final episode was aired, Yazidis and Christians marked six years since the genocide that has left hundreds of thousands displaced. If the documentary was trying to point to the legacy of the Iraq war, surely the decimation of certain Iraqi communities should have been at least mentioned.

It is not only Iraqis from religious and ethnic minorities who have been affected by brutal violence and displacement, as the documentary shows. However, for these small communities, the legacy of 2003 is the possible end of their presence in their ancestral lands.

According to an article published recently by the Chaldean Church - the largest church in Iraq - Daesh forcibly displaced 120,000 Christians from their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plains in just one night in August 2014. To date, only 40% of these people has returned home, while the rest either remain displaced within Iraq, mainly in the Kurdish region, or have emigrated.

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The Christians of Iraq are descended from the ancient civilisations that occupied the area of Mesopotamia for millennia and were among the first to embrace Christianity. Although there are no accurate statistics, it is estimated that in 2003 the Christian population of Iraq was around 1.5 million. Today it is thought that less than 250,000 remain.

In terms of legacy, the impact on the collective consciousness of the Yazidis (Ezidis) is worrying. They speak of having experienced over 70 genocides throughout their history. Yazidis have a unique belief system and culture that they fear might be lost. Many of their traditions have historically been passed down orally so with the fragmentation of the community into the diaspora many of those I have interviewed in my research fear the total loss of their heritage.

As of August 2020, 2887 Yazidis were still missing and it is feared that many women and children are still being held captive. Hundreds of thousands remain in Internally Displaced People camps in Northern Iraq living under squalid conditions.

If the purpose of the documentary was to give voice to the ordinary people of Iraq, it has written out part of the population and thereby rendered their story still more invisible

Northern Iraq is the traditional home to much of Iraq’s diversity and has long been a disputed area. After the First World War, Kurds aspired to a state in the area, as did Assyrian Christians, and both were denied. The border between Iraq and Turkey was disputed until in 1926 it was eventually decided following the recommendation of a League of Nation commission that Mosul should belong to the new Iraqi state rather than Turkey.

This is all part of the context and a thread that should have been visible in the narrative of the BBC documentary. Iraqi friends have expressed their anger and disbelief to me at the omission. The incredible images of Yazidis stranded on top of Mount Sinjar like trapped animals; the campaign, bravely articulated by Nadia Murad, to recognise this as a genocide; the daubing of the Arabic letter “Nun” for “Nazarene” on the homes of Christians, all appeared to have been forgotten.

In fact, those who have remained in Iraq complain of neglect from the central government and have been caught in the crossfire of the Turkish military attacks on Northern Iraq, as well as the squabbles between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Central Iraqi Government in Baghdad.

If the purpose of the documentary was to give voice to the ordinary people of Iraq, it has written out part of the population and thereby rendered their story still more invisible. It was also a missed opportunity to remind the international community about the ongoing suffering of IDPs and missing people, as well as the diversity of Iraqi society beyond a ‘Sunni-Shia’ divide.

In contrast to this documentary, Iraqis have not all forgotten the genocide. They realise that their ‘happily ever after’ can only come through an unflinching determination to include and celebrate Iraq’s diversity among the stories of ordinary Iraqi people. Activists and community leaders are part of a movement to recognise diversity as positive for Iraq. One such initiative is the creation of the Institute for the Study of Religious Diversity and its launch of curricula designed to challenge stereotypes by educating Iraqis about the different religious traditions that are part of Iraqi society.

The social and political challenges are immense, but the first step is acknowledging them. To leave out what happened to Iraq’s non-Muslim population from the narrative of the consequences of the 2003 invasion is a disservice and damaging.

This story, of course, doesn’t end here.

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