That’s how the UN Commission on Human Rights described the number of civilian deaths caused by conflict in Iraq from January 2014 to October 2015. According to a report published last week, at least 18,802 people were killed during that time.
The report says at least because there are parts of Iraq that are off-limits, making it difficult to access precise figures. These no-go areas include sections of Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, where ISIS maintains a heavy presence. The death toll there could be much higher than official estimates.
In Baghdad, the area with the highest number of documented fatalities, at least 6,168 people were killed. Many were victims of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Meanwhile, ISIS continues to target children, women, and religious and ethnic minorities.
It's easy to grow numb in the face of numbers like these, especially when another conflict is raging next door in Syria. But to grow numb means we'll miss the story the numbers don’t tell.
1. ISIS is only part of the story.
ISIS is, of course, one of the biggest parts of the story. They’re the main perpetrators of violence in Iraq today. They also get the most attention because they commit the most shocking acts of brutality—which, according to the report, include “beheading, bulldozing, burning alive and throwing people off the top of buildings.”
But the UN Commission on Human Rights also identifies “alleged violations and abuses” from other actors, including militia and tribal groups fighting against ISIS. “Concerning reports have been received of unlawful killings and abductions perpetrated by pro-Government forces,” the report states.
Violence unmakes the world—no matter whose violence it is. Many families in Iraq feel trapped, targeted from all sides and with few safe options available. We must stand with these families, waging peace in every direction.
2. Statistics tell only part of the story.
A statistic like 18,802 is understandably difficult to wrap our heads around. We cannot conceptualize large numbers as easily as small ones. So instead, think of it like this:
28 per day.
That is how many people, on average, died due to conflict in Iraq—every day in 2014 and 2015.
But even that doesn’t capture the full story, because these weren’t 28 faceless figures. They were 28 mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children with dreams of going to school.
For each one killed, exponentially more lives were unmade by their loss. Violence has ripple effects that reverberate across families, communities, and entire countries.
3. The death toll is only part of the story.
The UN report acknowledges that its numbers do not reflect the full magnitude of suffering. “The figures capture those who were killed or maimed by overt violence,” explains Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
They do not include the “countless others” who have died because they were deprived of basic necessities. From 2014 to 2015, a staggering 3.2 million Iraqis were displaced by conflict, including over one million school-age children. Many were left stranded in the desert during the height of summer—with no food or water.
In addition, ISIS has abducted children and women. Many are subjected to sexual abuse. Others are indoctrinated into ISIS’ brand of world-unmaking violence. The UN believes ISIS currently holds around 3,500 people in slavery, many of them from the minority Yazidi community.
Surviving conflict is only one of the challenges that Iraqi families must face. For many, the much bigger challenge—building a new life after the violence—lies ahead.
4. Violence is only part of the story.
Yes, the violence in Iraq is bad. It is world-unmaking. But this too is only part of Iraq's story.
In Iraq, there are classrooms where Muslim and Christian children learn side-by-side—where they learn to love and respect one another.
In Iraq, there are people like Dr. Hiwa, a survivor of Saddam’s genocidal Anfal Campaign, who aspires to become the first pediatric heart surgeon in Iraqi Kurdistan so he can unmake violence, one mended heart at a time.
In Iraq, there are people like Gozê, a Yazidi woman who fled ISIS and began a soapmaking business to care for her eight children.
In Iraq, there are thousands of people who were displaced but not forgotten in the desert—who received lifesaving food, along with other supplies, thanks to you.
There are many hard days ahead in Iraq. As we read the staggering numbers in the UN report, we should grieve the suffering they document. We should pause to lament.
But then we keep going. We keep on waging peace. We do not let numbers like these define the story of Iraq. To do so is to give violence the last word.
The people of Iraq deserve better than that.
Help unmake violence in Iraq by providing emergency relief and job empowerment grants to those displaced by conflict.