Restoring a Burned Out Room to "Good Enough" in Sinjar City, Shingal, Iraq

4/8/2019 12:09:27 PM

3428 View

Dr. Amy L. Beam
+ -


April 7, 2019

When Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) occupied Sinjar city and the other Ezidi villages, they burned many of the concrete wall houses on the inside before retreating.   They stacked up old tires, put a propane gas tank inside them, poured oil over them and set them on fire to explode.  The paint burned to a black crisp.  The plaster on the walls cracked and curled.  When I scraped it, it came off like powder.  It was impossible to wash the walls and paint over them. 


I may be the only foreigner trying to get permanent residency in Iraq, while Iraqis are looking for any way to leave this country.  I came to live in Sinjar city as an act of solidarity with the displaced Ezidis who returned.  I was one of the first civilians to return in early 2016, two months after Daesh was cleared out by the PKK and Peshmerga.  I am living here to report to the world the true conditions in Shingal, especially south of the mountain and to look for any projects funded by the millions that were supposedly donated by foreign countries and the U.N.

The plaster on the ceiling of my burned out room broke and fell off in large chunks, but where the ceiling met the wall, I had to use a hammer and chisel to knock out the last of the ceiling plaster.  I bought a ladder for $30 dollars.  Chiseling the plaster off took nearly a full day and left the nerves in my right hand tingling.  The exposed ceiling that remained was rough, blackened concrete. Before painting it, I had to climb on the ladder and scrub it with a broom and water. Black, burned concrete chips flaked off.  I had to keep changing the bucket of blackened water.   After applying four coats of latex white paint with a roller, we said, "good enough."  To bring the ceiling back to a true white would require another two coats of paint.

I spent two days scraping off the blackened plaster on the walls.  This left the walls gouged and rough.  I had the plan to hire a professional plasterer to plaster the walls back to smooth as glass.  However, the workman gave me a quote of $200 USD just to patch the holes.  I said no thank you,  I could plaster the holes myself. 

However, it is not possible to buy compound, that is, ready mixed plaster in a bucket.  I had to buy a big sack of plaster powder and mix it with water myself.  It hardened before I could patch the first hole,  so I hired a man at a daily rate of $35.  He filled the big holes in the wall where sheets of plaster had fallen off, but he balked at plastering the entire wall.  He said it would take two weeks and he did not want to do it.  "This in Shingal.  Pissa" meaning "no good". 

Why would anyone want perfection in a destroyed city with no future?  He applied paint to the walls before I had a chance to insist they be re-plastered.  So, they look rough up close, but good in a photo.  It was easy to choose the color because mustard yellow was the only "choice" in the store.  Fortunately, the only pair of drapes in town matched the walls.

Naim Ali and his men made a PVC door to fit the opening and installed a lock.  I did not pay for this.  They also replaced the glass in the windows.  We knocked out the broken glass from the steel frame French windows.  I scraped off the rust and gave the window frames and decorative security bars two coats of oil base white paint.  The men cut the glass to fit and installed it with putty.  I thought the putty application was uneven and rough-looking like the fluted edges of the pie crusts my mother used to bake, but by the 11th day, I had given up my vision of a perfectly finished room, They asked me if it was "ganja" (very good), but I replied "basha" (just OK).  I retreated to the room with the space heater, reconciled to "good enough."  When I returned to inspect the windows, they had removed the glass and started over.  The putty was neatly and cleanly applied.  Keep in mind, they were working for free.

The workman got a chip of glass in his eye, because he refused to wear goggles.  He saw the doctor in Sinjar Hospital who rinsed his eye and told him he needs to go to Duhok to see an eye specialist (hidden expenses).  He saw another doctor in Sinjar two days later who successfully removed a glass particle from his eye.  The cost was $45 dollars.

I and my host Ezidi family of 8 are living in an abandoned house that they do not own.  The people living in Shingal share the same outlook that living here is temporary. Shingal has little hope for total reconstruction and a returning population.   Most people here want asylum in another country. Those who returned from Kurdistan simply decided to take the security risk, because living in a concrete house, even a burned out one with no running water or electricity, may be a better temporary solution than living in a tent.   However, the 10,000 people living in tents on Shingal Mountain, opt to stay in their tents because they get some irregular food aid from NGOs. They cannot risk losing it.

The electrical wires are strung through the windows and tacked on top of the walls.  We ran the electrical wire on top of the walls and covered it with a white PVC box cover.  I watched over the plasterer to make sure he plastered the electrical boxes level.  I gave up the idea of sanding the plaster smooth.  On the day we finished the room, one of the plugs did not work.  Using a different plug, I plugged the electric tea kettle on the floor into my extension cord and, as the water boiled, the entire extension cord began smoking and burned out . . . a "feature" of the cheap cord, not the new wiring.  I will make a new extension cord with heavy-duty wire and plugs.

The concrete floor was uneven from the fire.  It had glass all over the floor that was nearly melted into the concrete.  It took hours with a hammer and chisel to remove the burned piles and get the floor to a good enough rough condition.  My workman offered to pour a new concrete floor for about $100 USD  including supplies, but I declined. I bought a thin carpet covering from a choice of four colors sent to me on WhatsApp, and the carpet arrived from Sunoni the next day.  The cost was 10,000 dinar or $8 USD per meter. The roll is four meters wide.  The carpet cost $50 USD.

After final painting around the light switches and plug boxes, we were ready to hang the $5 curtain pole and brackets and the $20 floor-to-ceiling drapes, then cut the rug to fit.  Instead of the estimated four days, it took  12 days to complete the room.   I paid for 4 days of labor and the rest was volunteer work, including my own time.  Some of the delay was caused by chronic daily power outages for hours at a time.  When the electricity was off, we could not use the power tools, so work was halted. Every time it rains, the city turns off the electricity to save the old and damaged electrical wires.

Fortunately, the hardware and paint store is around the corner, a two-minute walk which saved a lot in transportation costs.

This room is intended to be my private office and living/sleeping space.  The kids were dancing around with excitement as it neared completion.  The wife is asking for the porch ceiling to be painted white.  I hope my experiment in restoring a burned out room to a minimum standard shows what effort and cost is required. 

By the time I buy a few mats to sleep on, pillows, blankets, towel, tea kettle, mirror, etc, the cost will be $500 USD to restore one room with the volunteer help of my friends.  This cost does not include the cost of tools and of running electric wires from the street to the house, buying water tanks, a water heater, running a hose from a well, a water pump, space heaters, air conditioner, internet router and satellite dish, or kitchen appliances, dishes, and pans. 

The cost of restoring one house with 5 rooms to a livable condition can easily be $10,000 to $20,000 US dollars.  Ezidis do not have this money to make a house livable if they return to Shingal.  The vast majority of Ezidis remain stuck in IDP camps and unfinished buildings in Kurdistan, hoping for asylum, five years after being attacked and displaced by Daesh.

Room Size:  16' x 11' = 176 square feet or nearly 20 square meters

Cost of materials:   $240 USD

Cost of 4 days of paid labor:  $140 USD

Approximately 15 days unpaid labor


Dr. Amy L. Beam has been reporting on and assisting displaced Ezidis since ISIS attacked them in Shingal, in August 2014.  She is the author of "The Last Yezidi Genocide."  She lives in Sinjar (Shingal) city, Iraq, with Ezidis, most of whom are living in houses that do not belong to them. 

E-mail: amybeam@yahoo.com  Facebook: https://web.facebook.com/AmyLBeam  Twitter: @amybeam