Kurdish villagers worried about the coming winter are taking advantage of northern Iraq’s shifting battle lines to return to deserted communities that Kurdish forces have reclaimed from the self-described Islamic State.
As IS forces have retreated in parts of northern Iraq to focus on fighting in the west of the country, Kurdish officials are encouraging the villagers to return to their homes in the contested oil-rich territories of Nineveh province. The area, and its resources, are claimed by both the local Kurdish government and Iraq’s central government.
In dozens of villages like Kalhe around Zumar, a town between the IS stronghold of Mosul and Syria where some of the fiercest battles have taken place, the returning Kurds are finding looted homes and empty farmlands.
Kurdish peshmerga forces say they retook control of Zumar, northwest of Mosul, over the weekend after fierce fighting that killed dozens of IS fighters. The city had fallen twice to ISIS, as the Islamic State is also called, since June before being recaptured.
Most of the returning villagers have run out of options in the Kurdish region’s overcrowded cities. Some schools that had been used to house the displaced Iraqis have been reopened for the school year, and relatives can no longer host them.
“I have seven families living in my house and they don’t have anything – not even blankets or clothes,” says Muhsen Hussein, who came from a nearby village to line up for bottled water and other supplies as Iraqi helicopters flew overhead. The aid, distributed by the Danish Refugee Council, was paid for by the European Commission's humanitarian department.
By urging the villagers to return to their homes, Kurdish officials are alleviating the strain on Kurdish cities while also making sure no disputed land is unoccupied. But the officials can provide little help to people who have relied on nearby Mosul for subsidized fuel and for the regional government to pay their salaries. People have gone unpaid for months in a dispute with Baghdad over the right of the Kurdish government to sell oil from areas under its control.
“We went to Dohuk to try to stay with relatives, but we were 12 families in one house – there were lots of problems between the children,” says a Kurdish woman named Shireen, sitting on her porch while her young sons chases squawking geese around a dirt yard.
Multi-story houses under construction in Kalhe attest to what had been a steady income from farming and security work on the nearby oil pipeline. But the IS capture of a large swath of northern Iraq along with a deepening financial crisis has left the once-stable Kurdish region in turmoil.
Almost 3 million Iraqis displaced
The scale of displacement is unprecedented even during Iraq’s civil war seven years ago, with almost three million Iraqis now unable to go home. Almost a million people, many of them members of Iraq’s ancient religious minorities, have taken refuge in the Kurdish region.
In addition to displaced Iraqis, there are almost 250,000 Syrian refugees in the Kurdish north of Iraq. The most recent arrivals have come from the Kurdish Syrian enclave of Kobane near the Turkish border, where US and French air strikes have tried to keep the city from falling to ISIS.
In a journey reflecting the complicated Kurdish role in the region, more than 13,000 Kobane refugees have crossed through the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing between Turkey and northern Iraq since the Kurdish government opened the border post to them two weeks ago.
Mini-buses filled with weary parents and excited children drove across the border crossing on a recent day.
“Long live the PYD,” chanted the children in one vehicle, as they rolled past the flag of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
The PYD, the Democratic Union Party, and its military wing, the YPG, are credited by many Kurds with holding back the tide of ISIS both in Syria’s Kurdish region and in northern Iraq near Syria. The PYD, though, is the main political rival to Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, and is viewed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, which has fought Kurdish rebels for decades.
Turkey has agreed to allow a limited number of Iraqi Kurdish forces to cross through its territory to fight in Kobane, but has drawn the line at supporting the PYD. While it has allowed Syrian Kurds fleeing fighting in Kobane to cross into Turkey, it has not encouraged them to stay there.
Many of the men arriving from Kobane last week said they were bringing their families to Iraq’s Kurdish region before going back to fight with the PYD.
“We will not leave our Kurdish lands for foreigners to defend,” said a young man at the Gawagorsk refugee camp near Erbil who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mohammad. He said when ISIS became a threat more than a year ago, he was trained along with other Syrian Kurds for six months in the Qandil Mountains, a base for the Kurdish-Turkish rebel group the PKK in northern Iraq.
Mohammad says he was given weapons training there along with language classes in French and English as well as other Kurdish dialects.
Recalling flight from Kobane
With all the tents taken, families were being put up in mosques, schools, and temporary trailers in the overcrowded camp.
In one trailer, Mayasa Mohammad Ali sits on the floor surrounded by her four sons and holding tight to her year-old-daughter. Her eldest daughter, Sibel, who was nine, was killed in a mortar attack near Kobane.
“When ISIS started attacking our village we all ran out of the house,” she says. “Sibel was the last one out and we didn’t realize she wasn’t with us until we got to the road.”
Her husband went back and found the girl’s body outside their house, she says sobbing.
Sibel, she says, holding a photo of a schoolgirl with honey-colored hair, had dreamed of growing up to be a doctor.