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The Nun Helping Iraq's Underground Exiles

'When Saddam was thrown out the Muslim fanatics started sending threatening letters to us by post. They demanded we leave the country or be 'ready to die'. One day six masked men came to our house and tied my husband up, and each raped me in front of him. We decided we had to escape from that place."

The war in Iraq has led to suffering on an unimaginable scale, a million different stories of grief, violence and exile. But in this war - as in all wars - the unspoken background evil is the crime of rape. And for the Christian women of Iraq it is a tale repeated so often that it is hard to ignore. But, tragically for many of the women who fled, their ordeal did not end at the border.

About 13,000 Iraqi Christian refugees are now in Turkey, including 7,000 in Istanbul, crammed into the five poorest districts, waterlogged wastelands where the refugees huddle in the basements of condemned buildings.

These cellars are wet and foul-smelling, and because they are below the sewer line levels they have no toilets. There up to 80 people per basement live, cook and eat, digging small pits to make latrines. It smells foul, but they have no choice: to go back to Iraq would mean death.

The accommodation is controlled by local criminals, who demand £24 per person (children included) every month in rent. Anyone who fails to cough up is throw out into the street. Because they are illegal the refugees cannot register for work, nor even walk outdoors without fearing that the police will find them and thrown them in jail or - worse - send them back across the border.

Some of the women have found domestic work where they are poorly paid for their harassment, humiliation and even sexual abuse. If they tell the police they will be thrown in jail. Starvation and sickness are common.

But Sister Hatune is there to help them. The German-based Sister Hatune Foundation, with chapters in India, Europe and the United States, was established in 1992 to help the homeless, sick, disaster victims and persecuted refugees. Born in south-east Turkey from the remnants of the Assyrian population, Sister Hatune Dogan has spent most of her adult life in Germany.

Her work began in India in the 1990s, but the Iraq war and exodus of Christians has meant she now has the heartbreaking task of helping her own people too. There are some 3.5 million Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries, including 2.2m in Syria and 750,000 in Jordan. Somewhere around 600,000 are Christians. Their plight is especially pathetic.

Sister Hatune's visit to the refugees, where she distributes cash and clothing, is - to use a word much misused in the West - a godsend.

"It is very pathetic to see the helpless unhealthy mothers struggling to breastfeed their hungry children since no milk is available on them," she says. "Starvation is the most painful affair in human life and several mothers are forced to sell themselves for food and shelter. I met several families who will sell themselves for a piece of bread."

Sister Hatune, a gentle, smiling figure with an accent somewhere between Middle East and Middle Europe, is able to get the girls to speak more freely about their plight. Some of the stories, involving pre-pubescent girls, are too horrific to report. Many of the girls and women have bruises all over their body. For reasons of safety their real names are not given.

Helena is a typical example. Before the war the 47-year-old housewife, a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, lived in Baghdad with her electrician husband, her mother-in-law and two daughters, aged 18 and seven.

After the fall of the Iraqi capital in April 2003 Islamic militants began their campaign of terror. At first they sent threatening letters to the Christian families, demanding they convert to Islam or leave the country. Helena's family received such a letter but at first they did not take it seriously. One day her husband was coming home after work when he was ambushed by a group of militants waiting for him at his gates. They riddled him with machine gun fire. Two weeks after her husband's murder Helena received another letter and contacted a smuggler._They escaped to Istanbul, where they live in an underground basement along with 40 others, each paying the £24 charge. They have nothing left from their former life.

A few weeks after arriving a local pimp offered them money in return for the eldest daughter.

"Starvation is the most powerful feeling," says Sister Hatune, "and four days of starving for a piece of bread led a helpless family to sell their eldest daughter for a night to a wealthy Muslim."

The next morning the helpless 18-year-old girl returned to the camp with scars on her body and mind. She has since attempted suicide. "Those sadists burned her body with cigarettes," says Sister Hatune. "But there is nothing for the poor family to do but cry and pray."

Every family in the illegal refugee camp has their own stories to tell. That of Mrs Salam is especially tragic. The 27-year-old arrived in Turkey last August from Mosul in northern Iraq. The housewife and mother of two children - one aged four and the other 18 months - was, like many Christians, well-off and middle-class, her husband working in an oil refinery. "We were rich people with our own house and car, and were living peacefully during the Saddam Hussein period," she says. She was gang-raped in front of her husband, after which they escaped with the help of smugglers, disguised in Muslim dress.

"We carried all valuables and cash with us when we abandoned our house. On the way we asked the smuggler how much he would charge for bringing us in Turkey. He said: 'Whatever you have, that is my charge.' When we were nearing the Turkish border he and his gang searched our bodies and belongings and took everything. There were other families with us, and the same happened to all of them.

"When they dumped us in Turkey the only thing we had left was our clothes, but I begged for my small wedding ring and finally he give it back. Later I sold it. Because of hunger."

Like many rape victims, Mrs Salam finds the shame hard to take. "I am ashamed to look at others. They know me well and now they also know that I am raped. I often hide from others. I can't talk with anybody about my situation. Some days I think it is not possible to live."

She also feels horror at how her neighbours turned on her, a common experience in places where ethnic or sectarian violence erupts.

"Our Muslim neighbours became enemies to us. We have no more friends there, nobody to help us, and we are afraid that they will kill us if we return. We hope we will live one day in peace. We pray to God to call us back from this hell."

After the murder of Archbishop Paul Rahho, leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church, in northern Iraq last month some Iraqis talked of the Church going underground, like in the early days. It is a sentiment Mrs Salam shares.

"My faith is strong, because our forefathers were strong believers and they suffered more persecution in the early days, and we believe this persecution will glorify our spiritual life. "Sometimes I have asked: 'Why is God not saving us?' But God sends the people who help us, and I strongly believe he will save us. Your arrival is a symbol."

The Sister Hatune Foundation brings grain, wheat powder, sugar and woollen clothes by road, helped by the Indian chapter, the YMCA and the Jubilee Campaign in England. The Syrian government has also helped with a centre in Damascus to provide materials. Most important of all, though, is money - without work, and with many of their menfolk dead, the women are often defenceless. Sister Hatune, with the help of fellow Christians in Europe and elsewhere, was able to provide the money for a woman, her mother and two daughters to live and eat for six months, so their 18-year-old daughter no longer needs to sell herself.

"When I gave the money she fell down on her knees in thanks - for the donors who helped, not for me," says Sister Hatune.

She was able to give £480 to a 13-year-old who had been kidnapped and repeatedly raped for two weeks until the gangsters released her for £4,000.

Another family they helped consisted of a 16-year-old and her half-paralysed father and mentally ill mother. Her 22-year-old brother is missing. Islamic militants kidnapped the girl and held her for four months where she was abused. Along with their Christian neighbours, who were ordered to convert or die, they fled.

"Four men raped her. While telling her story she was shivering and nervous and collapsed. I was trying to hold her and carried her in hands. Our team paid their rent for six months."

On her final day in Istanbul Sister Hatune arrives in a pick-up van to a refugee hostel and distributed clothes and money. The same day the group meet six families newly arrived in Turkey sleeping on the ground without even an old carpet. Sister Hatune gives them mattresses, woollen clothes and £80 each.

The father of one family had been murdered so that a Muslim could take his job in an oil field, and the mother was forced to sell her body to make ends meet. Sister Hatune gave her £800 to make ends meet for six months.

Next month Sister Hatune will go to Jordan, where the scale of the human suffering dwarfs that in Turkey. She asks that Christians around the world dig deep to alleviate the unimaginable suffering of their fellow human beings. As one widowed mother forced to sell her body told her: "The donor who provided for us, is an angel who saved us from hell."

If you would like to help, please make a cheque payable to the "Assyrian Aid Society", and send it to the Society at 36 Crossway, London W13 0AX, with a note stating that the donation is for Sister Hatune.

By Ed West

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