Sunni Arab refugees escaping ISIS feel trapped in Kurdistan

by Campbell Macdiarmid
Tuesday, 7 April 2015 23:22 GMT

A displaced woman, who fled from Islamic State violence in Mosul, makes bread in refugee camp on the outskirts of the Kurdish city of Arbil December 1, 2014. REUTERS/ Azad Lashkari

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"I want to live as a person, not as an animal" - university graduate Imad Hussein

 (Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation)  


    In a cinder-block building in a wheat field on the outskirts of Dibaga, a village in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, a woman cooks rice over a gas stove.

    The building housed chickens until recently. Now it shelters 47 Sunni Arab families who found refuge here from Kurdish forces and the armies of the Islamic State, who are fighting over control of Iraq. Another 700 families live at other sites scattered around the village. 

    Inside the chicken farm, tarpaulins hang to create cubicles for each family. Children play along the corridors. There are only two toilets.

    The woman says she is the wife of Sultan Naef Ibraham Ali, an imam back in her home village. They arrived with their nine children in January. While safe here from fighting, she and other refugees find themselves stranded in Dibaga unable to return home and concerned about their future.  

     “It feels like a prison because we're not allowed to move from here,” the woman says.

    The Sunni Arab families say they are turned away from a checkpoint into the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq which is a 30 minute drive away. 

    Sunni Arabs, particularly those who have lived in areas under Islamic State control, are increasingly treated with suspicion in Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in the country's north inhabited primarily by ethnic Kurds.

    Kurds fear that hidden among the 1.25 million Iraqis fleeing to their region are sympathisers of the Islamic State, which is trying to carve out a medieval-style caliphate across Iraq and Syria.  

    In February Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the ethnic discrimination against Sunni Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan, noting that thousands were cordoned off in "security zones" on the edges of the region and hundreds more detained.

    The Kurds say they are at war and must defend themselves but HRW questioned their response.

    Letta Tayler, a HRW terrorism researcher, said in a statement: "Cordoning off Arab residents and refusing to let them return home appears to go well beyond a reasonable security response to (Islamic State) threat".

    There is a chance that fighting will drive thousands more to the region. Officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) say they are struggling already to deal with the humanitarian situation. The World Bank says the region needs an extra $1.4 billion this year to maintain services to displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees.

    Zagros Fattah, from the Kurdistan Ministry of Planning, said it was crucial to provide an alternative for displaced Iraqis. 

    “If people flee from ISIS and cannot sustain themselves, they will think they might as well go back to their home,” he said.

    Currently, the majority of displaced Sunni Arab Iraqis in the Kurdistan region are not living in camps and received limited assistance.

    Outside a mosque on the outskirts of Dibaga village, 65-year-old retired wheat farmer Mohamed Ibrahim awaited a distribution of flour from a local NGO. He just wants to go home, he said. “We don't have anything to do with the fighting.” 

    Inside the mosque, 23-year-old university graduate Imad Hussein shows where he sleeps alongside dozens of other people.

   "It's crowded and there is a problem with lice but we are told we cannot leave to go elsewhere or to go home," he said.

    Dreams of returning home, finding a job and marrying are on hold. The brightest spot on his horizon is a new camp funded by the Emirati Red Crescent which will be built in the village. The KRG says it should be open in three months.

    "I want to live as a person, not as an animal," he said.

(Campbell Macdiarmid is a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto)


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