Mending the damage left by war

12 August 2019, 16:01

Other than a very small outlet on the Persian Gulf, Iraq does not have a coast. But there have been NGOs, for many years. From long before some little man, obsessed with the spectre of elections, started insulting them with the term “sea taxis”. Anybody who has ever been to Iraq or Syria, and seen the blood flowing and the way horror crushes hope, will know that most of the people who choose to work with NGOs are not driving ferries. They are working hard to repair the damage caused by war and to build bridges in places where others did not have the courage, strength or determination to even try. They are lending a helping hand in the midst of unspeakable violence, with hands and hearts ready to heal wounds and found schools where grenades still fly. Facilitating dialogue and social interaction in a country consumed by hatred is not an easy undertaking. And money is certainly not the driving force. We do it because our grandparents and parents, who lived through war in Italy, taught us that it is the right course of action, explains Domenico Chirico of Un Ponte Per…, because it is wonderful when people can start living together again.

Article by Domenico Chirico – Un Ponte Per…
Published by


One evening in December 2018, when I was all alone after a long day working in the ruins of Raqqa in Syria, a town devastated by war and bombing, when I started crying. The death, violence and devastation I have witnessed in the past twenty years in the Balkans and in the Middle East doesn’t usually make me cry.

But I had just heard from Caserta that my beloved Aunt Rosalba, who raised me together with my cousins, had died. I found that harder to deal with than all the other challenges I faced in that period. I started thinking about the laughter we had shared and the distance which made it impossible for me to be at her funeral and hug her daughters, and I started thinking about the silent sacrifices of people who do this job. I didn’t talk to anybody about my news that evening and the next day I was back working in Al Hol refugee camp, one of the modern world’s most hellish situations.

Rosalba d’Andria was born at the end of the second world war, and even her name was imbued with a new-found optimism for the dawn (‘Alba’ in Italian) that was on the horizon. She was a teacher all her life and a fervent supporter of NGOs. I was at the frontline thinking about her, about my work and the distance which separated us but also about the sense of solidarity – like that of so many others – which we shared. I was thinking about the importance of being here, in these places, where our modern world is gradually falling apart. In Kosovo, the origin of humanitarian war and in Iraq, where war was declared on the whole population, based on lies told at the United Nations whose role  was completely undermined. Right up to Syria, this wonderful country which has been battered by 8 years of civil war and decades of dictatorship.

This is why we have to be here and be ready to offer support to victims of war and violence. Why we are working to mend the damage caused by war, with the ideals of a generation born after the second world war. In the schools of Mosul which were bombed during the liberation from Isis and in the camps sheltering people fleeing persecution. They are all victims.

I travel to a small isolated town outside Mosul, on the banks of the River Tigris. It is 50 degrees. Some people here were supporters of Isis, while others fled and were persecuted by Islamic State militants. Our local contact lost his house and some relatives and was hated by Isis because he was a respected inhabitant of the village who refused to succumb to their power. He went home after the war fully aware that some of his persecutors were now his neighbours. He started calling friends and acquaintances around the country to ask for their help: to repair schools, build youth centres and make a football field. To build a better future for the generations born into war and misery.

A Christian engineer who works with Un Ponte Per… who also suffered persecution at the hands of Isis, is now busy rebuilding a beautiful and welcoming village. The brand new bathrooms in the school are always kept locked because they are the first ones ever in this rural village. They also working hard to ensure access for people with disabilities and the infrastructure they need. There are many disabled people in this area, who mainly stay at home and are cared for by family members. Isis plundered the engineer’s house but he is not  frightened of working here, even though it was once an Isis stronghold. He knows that the schools we are renovating and repairing the holes left by grenades and the public spaces are now vital for the creation of peace.

Paul Ricaeur observed that in order to work on reconciliation and the devastation left by war, we must foster a shared sense of history, mutual cultural exchange and forgiveness. A process through which victims and perpetrators acknowledge their roles and responsibilities and work towards dialogue.

So, humanitarian workers like us living in war zones can facilitate two of these factors and we can certainly encourage cultural exchanges with the creation of Youth Centres and welcoming schools where people – and especially children – can gather and interact. This is never going to be easy in places where the rhetoric of war is ever-present and all-powerful. But when a ‘border-less’ musician like Luca Chiavinato, for example, visited  the youth centres, he formed an orchestra of talented young Iraqi musicians. He encouraged their dreams and brought them to perform in Italy, creating a solid bridge based on art, music and solidarity. This helped these young Iraqis reclaim some of those lost years. Because not all of the damage can be mended with plaster… these young Iraqis also need and deserve some poetry after so many terrible years. Or the secular prayers of their music, which touches the hearts of everybody who hears it.

The damage to people’s minds is the hardest to repair. Years of living with hatred and generations growing up surrounded by violence will only fan the flames of conflict. The children of Isis, locked in Mosul prisons for 9 years or more, view the world with fear and disgust. They need support instead of constant punishment. Just like the 40,000 young people who enrolled at Mosul University need hope, rather than a brief study break. And this is exactly what the NGOs are trying to provide, the same ones who are saving people who would otherwise be left to drown in the Mediterranean.

So, we do our best, regardless of many failures and constant challenges, to foster a sense of optimism that it is possible to close the distances and heal the damage. We do it without expecting anything in return. Simply because our parents and grandparents, having survived the war, taught us that it was the right thing to do.

That a sense of solidarity is not just our duty, but also a guiding principle for the sense of community that is vital if people are to live together in peace.