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"Being forced to flee your home is like being thrown away like a ball – and not knowing where you will land," says Buthainah Mahmood. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.
"Being forced to flee your home is like being thrown away like a ball – and not knowing where you will land," says Buthainah Mahmood. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Karin Råghall.

"Militia groups gathered around my house"

Women human rights defender Buthainah Mahmood got her life shattered when, last summer, she was forced to flee her home in Iraq. Today, she is one of millions of internally displaced people (IDP:s) in Iraq. But that does not stop her from working for human rights.

Buthainah Mahmood grew up in a religious and conservative family in Moqtadiya in the Diyala province in central Iraq. The family was well off, educated and well known in the region. They kept strictly to traditions and customs. Buthainah and her sister were not allowed to marry outside the family – only with close relatives – and were not free to choose the studies of their own interest.

Buthainah Mahmood wanted to study medicine, but her family decided that she should become a teacher.

“Unfortunately, they also didn’t choose a good husband. We had a bad relationship, and after ten years we divorced. This made me think about how I could change my own and other women’s situation. That’s when I got the idea to start a women’s group,” Buthainah Mahmood says.

Hawa Organisation for Relief and DevelopmentHawa was founded in 2003 and receives support from Kvinna till Kvinna for different projects. Among other things, Hawa runs a women’s center in Moqtadiya, where women victims of violence, provides education on violence against women and offers computer courses for women.

Currently, the organisation also provides IDP women in camps outside Khanaqin with legal and psychosocial assistance.

Founded organisation

Setting up a women’s organisation had been impossible before 2003, but after the fall of Saddam Hussein, civil society in Iraq expanded. Buthainah Mahmood founded Hawa Organisation for Relief and Development, who initially provided humanitarian aid to women who had suffered because of the war.

Since January 2014, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation has supported Hawa to run a center in Moqtadiya, where women victims of violence receive counseling and legal assistance. This has been a safe place for women in Moqtadiya and surrounding villages. Until last summer that is.

Attacks from all sides

While the Islamic State (IS) took control of the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, the violence and threats from Shiite militias in Moqtadiya and other parts of Iraq escalated. The security situation quickly deteriorated and the risk of being kidnapped or hurt was huge. Women lawyers and women’s rights activists were attacked and threatened by both Sunni IS and Shiite militias. Additionally, the Iraqi regime on several occasions bombed the area.

Several of Hawa’s staff fled, as did parts of Buthainah Mahmood’s family. Eventually, she realized she would have to do the same.

“Militia groups had begun to gather around my house and my brother repeatedly called me and told me to leave the city. I didn’t want to answer his calls, I was scared and the situation was so tense.”

The last days in Moqtadiya, she recalls in tears.

“I was so afraid that I could not sleep at night. I was waiting for the sun to rise, and I thought about what would happen to Iraq.”

Activist and IDP

Buthainah Mahmood managed to get out of Moqtadiya – despite the fact that all roads in and out of town were blocked – in a car where twelve travellers shared seven seats.

Now, she is living as an IDP in Iraqi Kurdistan. Left behind, for her and her family, are money, homes, land – and the feeling of belonging.

Buthainah Mahmood visiting children in an IDP camp in Khanaqin. Photo: Hawa/Suhair Basil.

Buthainah Mahmood visiting children in an IDP camp in Khanaqin. Photo: Hawa/Suhair Basil.

“Most of us live in tents and stand in line to get food from aid agencies. I don’t have any residence permit for the Kurdish region, and I often get stopped in checkpoints when I try to go somewhere,” Buthania Mahmood says.

Still, her commitment to women’s rights continues. Despite the distance, she tries to help women in Moqtadiya and she also documents human rights violations taking place under the current chaotic situation in the country.

Buthainah Mahmood is disappointed in how media describes what is happening in Iraq. She has witnessed assaults being committed by all sides of the conflict. But according to her, media almost exclusively focuses on IS.

“We all agree that IS are terrorists, but there are many other groups who commit similar acts of abuse. However, no one highlights their role in the destruction of our society. Where can I turn if both IS and the militias attack me?”

Important support

Having to flee her home has been difficult to adjust to. Buthainah Mahmood says that the Kvinna till Kvinna staff in Iraq has been important to her.

“They have encouraged me to continue working and to document human rights violations. Being forced to flee your home is like being thrown away like a ball – and not knowing where you will land. Just a simple thing as being told ‘you are a women’s rights activist, you are strong and can do this’ means a lot.”

There is no doubt that Buthainah Mahmood has a strong fighting spirit. By continuing to work for human rights, she hopes to be an inspiration and role model for others who share her plight.

“There is no justice to be found in Iraq today, but we must continue to work for the days that will come. Maybe our sons and daughters will have a better future.”

Karin Råghall

Updated in: 2014-11-21