New Internationalist

Iraq’s displaced forced to flee militant group for a second time

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Matthew Vickery and Sheren Khalel report on a desperate situation for the country’s refugees.

Refugees at Khazir camp [Related Image]
Children venture out into the midday heat at Khazir IDP Camp. The camp now stands abandoned after recent Islamic State gains. © Matthew Vickery

The UNHCR-branded tarpaulin was no match for the sweltering 50 degree Celsius heat in Khazir IDP (internally displaced persons) camp, yet for Subha Ali Khlaeyf and her five children it was the only form of protection they had had for weeks. Now they have had to leave even that behind, just like their home in Mosul.

The camp, sitting on the Iraqi side of the border between Iraq and Kurdish Iraq, was abandoned last week, as Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew, leaving the camp and its residents vulnerable to takeover by Islamic State, the militant group previously known as ISIS.

Last week the camp was over-capacity, bursting at the seams. With over 5,000 IDPs, the camp was so full that people like Ali Khlaeyf and her family had no tent to sleep in.

‘I am not sure how long we will stay here,’ Ali Khlaeyf said at the time, her eyes locked on her two youngest children sitting on the dirt-caked ground. ‘If someone gives us a place we will go; if they give us a tent here we will stay here. We don’t have a tent here, we have to sleep and live under this sheltered tarpaulin. But life is so bad now in Mosul, because of Daash [the Islamic State] and the airstrikes, what else can we do?’

The camp now stands abandoned, and residents like Ali Khlaeyf have scattered, looking for safe haven elsewhere in the unstable region – running again from the militants who displaced them to begin with.

The 5,000 residents of the camp were told that protection could no longer be provided, and they should evacuate as quickly as possible

On Thursday 7 August, Islamic State militants began advancing towards Khazir after a spate of successful and swift victories over Kurdish Peshmerga forces, particularly in the Christian communities of Qaraqosh, Tel Kayf and Bartella. The Peshmerga unit stationed at Khazir told the 5,000 residents of the camp that protection could no longer be provided, and they should evacuate as quickly as possible.

Manar Hamad was one of the many that found herself a two-time refugee within a matter of weeks. Hamad originally sought refuge in Khazir after the Islamic State started to implement draconian laws in the city of Mosul, including public lashings and executions. She and her family left Mosul after her husband was shot. He staggered into their house one day, having ventured out into the street to get bread. He was shot in the back by an Islamic State militant; the bullet remains lodged there, as he was advised that taking it out would leave him permanently paralysed.

‘After this [shooting] we knew we had to leave,’ Manar Hamad explained. ‘People are being arrested, hit, kidnapped and killed; they are going missing. Life there [in Mosul] is like hell. The Daash are coming to all the houses in the morning, evening and afternoon – at any time. Where I live in Mosul they have been going to people’s homes, they are whipping men, they have taken girls in the street. I have seen this for myself, with my own eyes, and those girls are still missing.’

Seeking shelter

Hamad and the thousands of others who, having originally fled to Khazir, were forced to leave the camp when threatened with Islamic State rule again, are now dispersed around Kalak and the Kurdish capital of Erbil, according to Mohammed Bahaldin of the Barzani Foundation – the Kurdish NGO that helped operate Khazir. Families are now desperately searching for shelter and safety, with the spectre of the Islamic State still looming large in their current predicament and in their recent memories.

In Ankawa, the Christian town on the outskirts of Erbil, several refugee camps have now been set up in parks, churches and other public spaces in order to house the influx of families seeking sanctuary from persecution – particularly within the last few days, as the Islamic State began a new offensive, taking over swathes of previously Peshmerga-controlled land. The camp at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral houses around 1,000 Christians, many of whom were told by Islamic State militants that they had a choice: either they convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. Now whole families sleep outside under trees; others have secured a space in the crowded church, while the newest arrivals sleep on benches, pathways and in a nearby park.

‘People are being arrested, hit, kidnapped and killed; they are going missing. Life in Mosul is like hell’

The city of Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city in Iraq, was seized by Islamic State militants in the early hours of Thursday morning. The city was previously protected by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and armed volunteers from the city; however, when the Islamic State made a move on the city the call was given by the Peshmerga to abandon Qaraqosh’s ancient walls. Some 50,000 residents fled – the reason why Ankawa is now overflowing with Qaraqosh families seeking sanctuary.

‘We ran at 4 am. There was shooting and we heard the shouts of Allahu Akbar from Daash as they marched towards the city,’ Asad al-Sakt, a refugee from Qaraqosh, explained. ‘The Peshmerga told everyone to leave, that they were leaving as well. Now we are here. We had to leave; maybe they would have killed us, and they would have kidnapped women and girls as they have done before. What sort of life is this? I want my family to have a new start, to start from zero again. We can’t be Christians in Iraq. I feel things like this will always happen to us.’

Like all the camps now set up in the Kurdish region, water and food is scarce in Ankawa. Food has run out and water is limited. Tents have not arrived, so shelter is a luxury, yet more refugees keep streaming in. They are living in limbo, and very few in Ankawa believe that this state will be temporary.

‘I will never be able to return to Qaraqosh, I am sure of this,’ al-Sakt said. ‘Life is more than just food and water. It is about being able to live. I don’t feel like I will ever have this in Iraq, and I will never have this here in Ankawa, living like this. I don’t know what we will be able to do. I fear I won’t have my life back for a long time.’

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