Airwars speaks to PAX about their recent visit to the still-devastated city of Hawijah in Iraq, and interviews with 119 survivors.
Airwars’ Netherlands-based advocacy partner, PAX for Peace, is currently undertaking research in the Iraqi city of Hawijah, where a 2015 US-led Coalition strike against ISIS led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and the injuring of hundreds more. On the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, Dutch F-16s bombed an ISIS Vehicle-Borne Improvised Devices (VBIED) factory in Hawijah. Secondary explosions then destroyed a large area of the city. After withholding its role in the deadly event for more than four years, the Dutch government eventually took public responsibility in November 2019.
PAX’s new research will examine many of the questions that came from the joint report that Airwars and PAX released in October 2020, ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’. We conducted a Q&A with the PAX team to hear more about their recent visit to Hawijah and upcoming report. As you’ll read from eyewitness reports in this article, the Dutch must urgently hold themselves truly accountable to civilian harm caused from their tragic actions in Hawijah, and other incidents with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria.
The Airwars’ Advocacy Team spoke to Roos Boer, Project Leader for Humanitarian Disarmament at PAX, and Saba Azeem, Project Leader for the Human Security Survey (Iraq).
Airwars: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. To start off, can you describe for someone who doesn’t already know the details of the story, what happened in Hawijah on June 2nd, 2015?
Roos: So on this particular night, a Coalition airstrike targeted an ISIS munitions factory in Hawijah, which was located in the industrial area. The strike was conducted by the Dutch. In this factory, a very large supply of TNT [dynamite] was stored, which detonated after the first impact. When we were talking to people there, people described that it felt like a nuclear attack in terms of the destruction.
Saba: It is also important to understand that there is no clear demarcation such as ‘this is solely an industrial area’, and ‘this is solely a residential area’ – they are often quite intertwined. So to say that it only targeted the industrial area and that there were no residential areas around would also be a very narrow description of the context.
Secondly, there was about 18,000 kilos of TNT in the munitions factory which exploded. It left a crater 11 meters deep and 20 meters wide. And apparently in Kirkuk, which is 50 kilometers away, the shock was measured at 4.3 on the Richter scale. That’s how big it was.
What were the immediate consequences for the local population, and how did the Dutch government and military initially respond to the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this strike?
Roos: The explosions directly led to at least 70 civilian deaths and hundreds of civilians being injured. In addition to that direct impact on civilians, 400-500 buildings were reportedly destroyed; this includes homes and schools, factories and shops. The electricity transmission station was located in the area, but also many damaged roads, et cetera. So there was a lot of immediate harm but it’s also leading to longer term impacts where services are disrupted.
It’s also very important to mention that it was a really big chaotic event. People didn’t know what was going on, they couldn’t see anything, there was dust everywhere, bodies and body parts everywhere, and this led to a lot of trauma for people. The psychosocial harm has been immense.
You also asked how the Dutch government responded and that is a very interesting question because they didn’t. It was not until 2019, so that’s four years after the attack, following publications by the NOS and the NRC, who are part of the media in the Netherlands, that the Dutch Ministry of Defense publicly took responsibility for the air strikes. So there has been a big lack of transparency. They assessed in their CDE [Collateral Damage Estimation] that the secondary explosions would not extend beyond the industrial area, which was not purely an industrial area, as was already mentioned.
After the attack in September 2015, it was announced that they will increase the scrutiny of targets in populated areas which have the expected potential for secondary explosions.
It sparked, of course, a very intense debate in the Netherlands because the Parliament also was not informed about the events. So there were a lot of questions being asked in Parliament about transparency and accountability. As a result, the then-Dutch Minister of Defense, [Ank] Bijleveld, announced greater transparency in informing Parliament about investigations into civilian casualties. The Dutch government also announced that they would contribute $4 million US dollars to rebuilding the infrastructure. They very clearly were not interested in giving individual compensation, but just in giving a more general contribution to the reconstruction of Hawijah. This was promised 10 months ago, and we understand the money is being contracted through the UNDP/FFS [United Nations Development Programme’s Funding Facility of Stabilisation] , and the IOM [International Organization for Migration]. However, we haven’t seen much of the money being spent – yet – or contributing to the people we spoke to in Hawijah.
Saba: And linking to what Roos already said, the Dutch have claimed responsibility, but they have not apologized, which is quite appalling. In terms of the destruction, we have seen eight car showrooms completely destroyed, the Hawijah municipality department building, the electricity department building, the civil defence department [building and vehicles], four ice factories, at least five or six brick factories, one flour mill all have been destroyed. An estimated 1,900 people have lost their livelihoods. Also the [Dutch] scope of calculating the casualties has been very narrow. The area was besieged, and the general hospital was under ISIS control. So they were not treating any civilian injuries or deaths. So where does this number come from?
You mentioned that the Dutch government only started talking about this in 2019 after journalists exposed the story. But do you have a sense of when they knew about the civilian harm that had occurred?
Saba: From what we’ve heard, the Minister of Defense knew within a few weeks. We did see that after the strike quite a lot of news channels reported it, even the ISIS news channel at the time, released footage which European channels then used. There was also a press conference by a US General saying that there was a munition factory in Hawijah that was hit. So I think it was within days of this happening, the Coalition and the international community knew of the airstrike. Whether the Dutch knew that they were behind it, that’s a different question.
Roos: Regardless of whether they did or didn’t know; if they knew, then it’s rather problematic that they didn’t report it, if they didn’t know, to me that is very problematic too because they are responsible for assessing the impacts of their weapons. So just as a separate remark about this.
In October last year, PAX and Airwars released our report, ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’. What were the main findings from this report?
Roos: ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’ was a joint report of Airwars and PAX. We examined the longer term effects on civilian populations of the international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa, and Hawijah. We especially looked at the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, because we know there is a worldwide pattern of how these weapons in populated areas impact civilians. The longer term effects and reverberating effects are often under-reported. But we know that when explosive weapons are being used in populated areas, nine out of 10 casualties are civilians. So that’s a very alarming number.
And [‘Seeing Through the Rubble’] painted a rather grim image of how the destruction was still there, how difficult it is for people to pick up their lives if their cities are destroyed by our militaries. And then I think it was a good snapshot of the situation. But when we started researching, it only created more questions, so I was very happy that we could continue our research into Hawjiah, and visit the location. And now Saba is leading on a much more in-depth piece of research interviewing many of the survivors in Hawijah. I am sure she can tell you more about it.
You’ve recently been engaging in this research on the ground in Hawijah. It would be great to hear about what you’re currently researching and how you’re going about investigating this, in a bit more detail.
Saba: The research, which started in February this year, is being done by a consortium led by PAX, with the Intimacies of Remote Warfare at Utrecht University and al-Ghad League for Woman and Child Care as partners.
Out of the 119 civilians interviewed thus far, 62 lost their loved ones, whereas the rest either sustained injuries or material damage. The research is looking at these reverberating effects and examining how – six and a half years later – civilian lives are still impacted heavily by the airstrikes. Because this was a besieged area, those who were injured were either not treated in a timely manner or not treated properly, which have resulted in very, very chronic issues.
The psychological trauma cannot even be measured. For instance, there is a gentleman we met, who lost seven members of his family including five of his children. How do you rebuild your life from there? Or the child who has had his face burned off and he is being bullied in school and has been forced to drop out because of this bullying – how can you even compensate for that? So it was heartbreaking hearing these individual stories, and meeting the people in person was quite overwhelming. But it also showed us how we failed as the humanitarian community in actually addressing these issues, which were caused by Dutch actions.
Roos: One of the interviewees asked me directly, “Are we less human than you are? If this factory was located in a Dutch city, would you have done it in the same way?” And those, I think, are very spot on questions and very rightfully asked.
Saba: And to say that civilians are not aware, that is a complete understatement. Every person we met, whether they were authorities or civilians on the ground knew exactly what happened. We were asked how long it took for victims of Srebrenica to get their compensations, so they could calculate how long it would take them. So these are very well-informed people. Everybody wanted an apology from the Dutch – a formal apology by the Dutch government and by the parties who carried out the strike, as well as individual compensation.
Thank you for that. So did your findings confirm the conclusions from ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’?
Saba: This research confirmed the findings and then also added a very direct civilian voice to it. I think so far, most of the studies that have been taking place are usually looking at data from a distance, or maybe interviewing three to five civilians. But now we have the voices from over 119.
Does Hawijah continue to be affected by the strike, and is it still obvious when you visit the city today?
Saba: For us, that was one of the most appalling, for lack of a better term, aspect; that six and a half years later, you still see the rubble on the ground, which until now has not been cleared. You see that the hospital is still – a very major part of it – in prefabricated containers. We met a woman whose daughter was injured in the attack. She was 14 then, so about 20 now. And she was also worried that now that she has these prominent scars because of the injuries, who would marry her? Children, because their parents died or were injured, now can’t go to school, because they have to earn a livelihood. We got reports, which are yet to be confirmed, of children in primary schools, who are suffering from chronic diseases, like heart issues, high blood pressure and diabetes, because they’re so stressed by their trauma that happened six and a half years ago. So the city is very much completely at a standstill and it is still suffering from these aftershocks of what happened in June 2015.
Roos: You see a wounded city. It’s not like a huge city, but it’s a city with this roundabout, and if you take the wrong turn, you are in a pile of rubble. If you take the other turn, you see so many small commercial activities taking place. It is a wounded city with multiple faces. And the people that were affected, that were injured, they sold everything that they still had, to be able to pay for this first [medical] treatment [after the strike], including shelling injuries or amputations. They had nothing before, then they sold their jewellery or whatever they had to pay for this treatment and after that they were left with nothing. And they basically live off what other people are giving to them. It’s a very hopeless feeling if you talk to these people.
Saba: Like the hospital, for instance, it used to have a surgical wing, and now they don’t have the capacity for conducting surgeries anymore. They do not even have medicines for chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. People now have to travel 50 kilometers to Kirkuk, or have to spend their own money to get medicines [from private hospitals or pharmacies] that they need on a daily basis. They had 5,400 teachers before, and now there’s only 3,200 left. So you see these, these very visible sort of things as well. Giving numbers is one thing, but then when you meet the humans and you can paint a very clear picture of how these civilians feel. We met this gentleman who tried to commit suicide twice, because he used to be one of the richest people in Hawijah and then he lost everything.. And when we asked him, so all of this has happened and how would you like to sort of address it all? And he said, “All I want is death because I am done living.” How do you respond to that?
Thank you for depicting these long lasting effects and very human tragedies. So finally, I know you’ve touched on this a little bit, but I thought maybe you could just tell us about how the people of Hawijah think of the way that the Dutch have held themselves to account over this incident.
Saba: Well, as Roos already mentioned one of the questions we were asked was if the Dutch had different definitions of human rights? They were saying that you expect things like that from ISIS, which is a terrorist entity, but you don’t expect things like this from the Dutch, who are champions of human rights.
We have also had statements saying that they do not trust the Dutch government, however they do trust the Dutch justice system. So if they’re not given the justice that they deserve, then they will go to court and they will try and get their rights through the formal legal system. But then, across the board, whether it is authorities or whether it’s civilians, they do name the Dutch very outwardly and very clearly.
For instance, in the debate in the Netherlands, we heard that the intelligence was given to the Dutch by the Americans. So when I asked them why not blame the Americans and they actually had a very interesting answer, which we do not disagree with: They said the American intelligence was flawed during the Gulf war, the American intelligence was proved wrong in 2003, when they said there were weapons of mass destruction. So why are the Dutch still trusting the Americans? The person or entity carrying out the airstrike, they also have their own own minds and their own eyes. So why aren’t they trusting their own facilities for that measure?
Thank you very much for sharing this incredible research with us. Those are all our questions. Do you have anything final to add before we end?
Saba: The research report will hopefully be out in January. Hopefully we can add a lot more to the debate and also show multiple entities around the world, whether it’s NATO states or other nations joining international coalitions, or take part in this kind of warfare, to not only take the direct casualties or the direct harm into account. These reverberating effects often are even worse [and longer lasting] than the direct effects. So in the targeting process we firmly believe that this also needs to be integrated.
It will be on our site and on the Intimacies of Remote Warfare website. And there will also be a public launch.
And we will definitely share it widely on our social media as well. So it should be readily available to anyone looking for it. Thank you very much both of you for your time!
Saba: Thank you for, for touching on this important subject. Thank you.