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George Osborne: Seeing Iraq’s suffering reminds me why there is no excuse for inaction

05 November 2018

he cold, hard rain was forming rivers down the mud streets of the refugee camp near Mosul when I visited.

Shivering in the entrance of the tent she calls her school, 12-year-old Lana proudly showed me her drawing of a forest. Except it was a field full of tree stumps.

Each one, she calmly explained to me through a translator, represented a member of her Yazidi community cut down by the fanatics of Islamic State when they murdered and raped their way through her town four years ago.

Her classmate Ahmed’s drawing was more direct. It was a picture of kneeling captives in orange jump suits and the men in black about to kill them with guns and swords.

These children had seen things no person should see.

One of the children in the refugee camp, Ahmed, explains his artwork to Evening Standard editor George Osborne / Claire Thomas

Here I was in Iraq, whose tragedy imprinted itself more than any other on my two decades in British politics, but a place which until two weeks ago I had never visited.

I had come with War Child, the brilliant London-based charity that helps those children caught up in conflicts around the world. Their trained therapists use art as one way to help with childhood trauma.

Hope for the future: the brilliant charity War Child is helping children caught up in conflicts around the world / Claire Thomas

This autumn, the Evening Standard’s Learn to Live campaign has been supporting the charity and connecting schoolchildren in our capital with those in refugee camps like the ones I visited.

The charity was founded back in the early Nineties to help victims of the Yugoslav civil war. That terrible slaughter on our own continent provided a backdrop to my years as I left university and started work.

Srebrenica, then Rwanda, these were the places that shamed a western world that did nothing to stop the killing. It shaped my view that intervention for humanitarian reasons and against evil regimes, where possible, was the right approach.

A decade later, in 2003, I was a new MP when I was asked to vote to back the invasion of Iraq, and did. Robin Cook’s resignation speech, Tony Blair’s impassioned appeal on the eve of the crucial division, I watched it all from the opposition benches.

The then Prime Minister told us MPs in that highly charged Commons debate that the decision we took would “determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation”.

He was right — but for the wrong reasons.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the chaos and killing that followed, did set the course of international politics for a generation.

It set the US on a course of retreating from the rest of the world. It poisoned politics in our country. And it made it much harder to argue the case for intervention in other humanitarian cases.

Yes, the immediate threat of a massacre in Benghazi spurred the government I was part of, with French allies, to take action to stop Colonel Gaddafi’s murdering forces.

Libya was in a state of civil war before we intervened; the fact that it was still a mess after we left was taken as proof by the isolationists who say the West should never get involved.

When I argued inside the National Security Council in 2012 that we should intervene aggressively to stop the slaughter of the emerging Syrian civil war, I was met with the reply by anxious colleagues: no, not another Iraq.

When David Cameron asked Parliament in 2013 to back limited strikes against the Assad regime in Syria to deter their use of chemical weapons against civilians, he was met with the reply by a cynical opposition: no, not another Iraq.

On each occasion, we were told about the cost of getting involved — the loss of life that could follow, the financial burden that would incur, the unpredictable outcome.

What wasn’t so clear was the cost of not getting involved in Syria: the horrific loss of life that we didn’t prevent, the chaos we didn’t try to end, the door we opened for Russia, the mass refugee flows we failed to stop, the poisoning of the politics of Europe that followed — and the ungoverned space we left and which the so-called Islamic State (IS) emerged to occupy, then expand over the border into Iraq.

Mr Zain knows the cost of our failure to get involved. I was invited into the tent he shares with his family.

He told me about the life they used to have, with his house, his own shop and their small plot of farmland. Then he recalled the night in 2014 when IS arrived. He and his family ran and ran, up the nearby mountain.

There on the top they remained, he told me, exposed to the elements and listening in fear as the killers approached in the dark.

After seven days, Kurdish Peshmerga forces arrived to save them — and they have lived under their protection in this refugee camp ever since.

To this day, he and his family do not know the fate of their relatives and neighbours who did not escape. They assume all the men are dead. But the women and children were taken into slavery, and many remain trapped with their captors.

Children being taught in the school set up in the refugee camp / Claire Thomas

This is a story that almost no one tells, for we here in the West think Islamic State has been defeated.

Yes, it has been decimated and drastically pushed back, out of towns such as Mosul and Raqqa. I saw for myself some of the charred hulks of the homemade tanks — like bizarre props from a Mad Max movie — that the Peshmerga had destroyed. I met the Iraqi children who had lived under IS and whose families are now interned in a camp near Erbil, suspected of collaboration and abandoned by most charities except War Child.

What no one knows is how many women and children are the slaves of IS, as they retreated into northern Syria

What no one knows is how many women and children remain the slaves of IS, as they retreated into northern Syria. All we can imagine is their misery and suffering.

We are long past the point where Britain might intervene in Syria.

When the Presidents of Turkey and Russia met the French and German leaders last month in Istanbul to discuss that country’s fate we were not even invited to the meeting.

But my trip, as Editor of the Evening Standard, to the refugee camps of Iraq was a reminder that we cannot walk away from obligations we have to provide a safer world for victims of our self-satisfied inaction.

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