by Kevin Knodell (read part 1 here). He is a freelance journalist based in Tacoma, Washington, USA. He currently coordinates and edits War is Boring’s Iraq field coverage with an international team of journalists. You can follow him on twitter at @KJKnodell
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The Sinjar tragedy
Anti-Arab sentiment has been on the rise in Iraqi Kurdistan since Islamic State militants broke Kurdish lines in August, seizing town of Sinjar. The town was home to the largest Yezidi community in Iraq, but also has a sizable Arab community. Arab and Yezidi merchants had a long history of doing business together.
But the militants regard Yezidis as devil worshippers, and when they took the town, they embarked on a campaign of rape and slaughter against the Yezidi people. They tore families apart and militants sold captured women into slavery. The Yezidis fled to nearby Mount Sinjar, many bringing Christian and Shia refugees they had been sheltering with them. The United Nations harshly condemned Islamic State’s actions, going so far as to warn of the possibility of genocide.
Not long after, the American air campaign began. Jets struck militant positions, while cargo planes dropped food and water for the refugees. Many Arabs risked their lives trying to help their Yezidi friends and neighbors escape. But others — whether out of fear or ambivalence — stood by and did nothing. Worse, many of them helped the militants, telling the Islamists where Yezidis were hiding. Some even participated in the rapes and killings. Afterwards, some Arabs ransacked abandoned Yezidi homes and took their livestock to sell in Mosul. Many Yezidis feel their Arab neighbors betrayed them. Some say that they don’t ever want to go back to Sinjar after what happened there, and many say that they want to leave Iraq altogether.
Mohsin Saadoun, a Kurdish Democratic Party representative serving in the Iraqi National Assembly recently proposed a legislation to segregate Kurds and Arabs in mixed communities in the north. A politician from Zummar, Saadoun, said that there is no way for Kurds and Arabs to be neighbors again. The Yezidi refugees’ stories have evoked a strong emotional response in Kurdistan. Some Kurds are channeling that response towards Arab refugees.
Kurdish activists have staged protests in cities all over Kurdistan. Many Kurds want Arabs put in centralized camps so authorities can keep tabs on them. Others want the Kurdish government to expel the Arabs altogether. “The first time I saw the demonstrations in the street here I was shocked”, recalls Ramiza. She couldn’t believe that Kurds — who have experienced displacement so frequently — could so quickly turn on the refugees. “If you talk with any person he would tell you about 1991”, she says. “But now things have changed” (Between March and April 1991, Iraqi forces suppress rebellions in the southern and northern parts of the country, creating a humanitarian disaster on the borders of Turkey and Iran).
Kurdish authorities have struggled with balancing allowing open discourse with protecting refugees. Not to mention Arab residents like Dirar and Ramiza, who have lived peacefully in the region for years. “A lot of Arabs, who live in Erbil, for example, who have lived there with their families since 2007, they feel insecure”, Ramiza explains. “So for those Asayish, who know old Arab families, who live in Erbil, they called them and asked them to stay calm… that is nice, in a way”.
As demonstrations ramped up in Erbil, Ramiza says that an Asayish officer called the father of one her Christian Arab friends in the city. The officer asked him not to do anything if he saw or was in the middle of an anti-Arab protest. The officer informed him that the Asayish couldn’t stop the protest, but wanted to promise him that the officers would keep the Arabs in the city safe. When she saw her first demonstration, Ramiza was with her sisters. The protesters scared her sisters, they told Ramiza the Kurds hated them. She insisted that her sisters had nothing to be afraid of, that these protesters were just an angry fringe group that didn’t know better.
“Then they saw all those comments and offensive posts on Facebook”, she says. Many Kurds have taken to the Internet to voice their opinions. Politics, race, patriotism and religion are all popular sources of conversation in Kurdish social media circles. Some Kurdish Facebook pages, like Naheshtni Arab la Kurdistan, commonly express anti-Arab sentiments. “I posted photos of the demonstration on Facebook and I wrote that these are not the Kurdish people I have known and lived with. Kurdish people are not this group”, Ramiza says. She said Kurdish friends and relatives got defensive. They told her they weren’t protesting her, just the refugees. She said it only made her angrier that they would protest people seeking safety for their families.
Dirar said that one of his Kurdish friends wrote on Facebook “all the Arabic people, who came here, most of them have jobs, they have high posts in the companies and good houses to live in. Then the Kurdish citizen is left sitting in the house without warmth because the Arab gets it”. When Dirar messaged him, his friend told him he didn’t mean Dirar because he was a Turkman. “I had to tell him that I am an Arab”.
Ramiza says that she has even been drawn into debates with her husband’s family. “This whole fight started when one of my husband’s relatives wrote that their neighborhood is officially Arab… and you know there were tons of comments going on saying, ‘Yeah we hate them, now we cannot go anywhere because it’s all full of Arabs'”. She got into a heated argument with her in-laws. Her Kurdish relatives told her they didn’t understand why she was so upset. She eventually wrote back that the Arabs did not invade Kurdish houses, that they have papers and are legally paying rent for their homes. She told them that if they have a problem with that, they need to demonstrate against the Kurdish landlords, who are giving those houses to Arabs. “There are a lot of pages there that are attacking Arabs, not only refugees”, Ramiza says. “What I saw on Facebook was pages asking the Kurdish government to take all Arabs out, to attack them and put them in prison.”
Ramiza doesn’t know what to make of it. She is particularly disturbed by what she has seen in her friends and colleagues — fellow human rights workers, who she thinks should be fighting for the refugees. “The most disappointing thing was when I first heard people close to me talking about Arabs in a bad way”, she says. “They might have forgotten that I am originally Arab because I speak Kurdish. “I’ve heard bad comments about Arabs and a lot of people attacked Arabs in front of me, people that I wouldn’t imagine would do that, open minded people like women activists, like human rights activists. They were like, ‘No, no, no Arabs need to be in camps.'”
Kalan is a college student, who has taken part in the protests. But he insists that he isn’t motivated by hatred or racism. He says that the situation is far more complicated. “We are not against the Arab refugees which came from the war, who were kicked out by the ISIS. We have a problem with the refugees, who have ISIS in their minds”, he says.
He is concerned that the refugees pose a massive security risk. “We want some security procedures. Those procedures are putting the Arab refugees in a camp, not in the cities.” He claims that terrorists and sympathizers have already infiltrated Kurdistan under the guise of being refugees. “[Last summer,] Islamic State was close to Erbil, and Arabs inside the city were having a party,” he says. He explains that hundreds of Arabs were arrested as they celebrated the militants’ advance. The Arabs told Kurdish authorities they had no right arresting them for celebrating.
He says that many arab refugee families, are women and children living in Kurdistan while their husbands and fathers fight for Islamic State. “They see that Kurdistan is safe. They are fighting against Peshmerga and their families are safe.” He says there have been specific documented cases. He cites a sniper that Peshmerga forces captured in Jalawla. “He was ex-Saddam’s army. He was a great sniper, he killed six Peshmerga”. Reportedly, when the Peshmerga captured the militant they asked him where his family was. Kalan says that the sniper told the Peshmerga that he had sent his family to Sulaymaniyah, becauss he knew they would be safe there. “So you can imagine, this [(Kurdistan)] is the safe part, his family is living there, but he is still fighting against us,” Kalan remarks.
But he insists that he doesn’t hate Arabs. “They can change, we can help them. We can open universities inside their cities, we can open schools for them,” he explains. “Maybe in 20 years, the next generation of them will be a society like yours. I could never hate them. There are cities like Karbala, there’s not any hate towards the Kurdish.” He says that he has a friend, who tells people they don’t have any problems with the Arabs, who came to the bars or nightclubs, but they have a problem with those, who came to the mosques. Kalan says that he is willing to concede that some of the protesters probably are racist though. “Of course there are many of them that hate Arabs,” he says. “Many Kurds hate the Arabs and many Arabs hate the Kurdish.”
He thinks that the influx of refugees has exacerbated ethnic tensions. That’s part of the reason he advocates sending Arabs to camps or out of Kurdistan as soon as possible. “If we don’t take care of the problem, if we don’t move the people to the camps or move them back to their cities, people will not trust Arabs. Especially the Syrian Kurdish. If the government doesn’t take care of the Arabs, I think the Syrian Kurdish will attack the Arabs.”
He explains that putting people in camps is a normal thing, and it’s something the Kurds had to put up with in the aftermath of their wars with the Ba’athists. “Let me explain this to you: when the Kurds went to Iran as refugees, do you know what Iran did? Iran put them in camps, camps like the ones animals lived in.” Iranians didn’t let any Kurds into the cities, even though all of the cities along the border were overwhelmingly Kurdish. “There are many families, who have cousins in the Iranian part. [The Iranians] didn’t even let them go to their cousins. Despite this we are very grateful for what the Iranians did for us, even if they treat us like animals. At least they didn’t kill us.”
But he believes the Kurds can do it better than the Iranians. “I don’t say to keep [the Arabs] in camps and treat them like the Iranians treated the Kurdish,” Kalan clarifies. “I’m saying put them in the camps and treat them well. Not like what the Iranians did, not like what Turkey did.”
A Common Enemy
Ramiza says that division is the wrong strategy. She says that Islamic State represents something far more sinister than a regional feud. The way she sees it, it’s more important than ever for Kurds and Arabs to come together. “There is ISIS out there and we all need to go and fight them. Not only Peshmerga, not only Iraqi Army, because they are attacking everybody,” she says. “They don’t distinguish if you are Kurdish or Arab.”
Rana points out that many ethnic Kurds have also been fighting with the militants against the Peshmerga and Iraqi Army. Islamic State includes members from all over the world — including radicalized white westerners. It’s far from a strictly Arab movement.
Many Peshmerga actually involved in fighting the militants also believe that shelving old hatreds — at least of the time being — is vital to defeating Islamic State. They say that getting the support of Sunni Arabs is critical to undermining the militants’ power base and ensuring a lasting solution. For instance, Major general Abdulla Musla Boor — known in Kurdistan as “The Dark Lion” — expressly told War is Boring that Sunni Arabs, who oppose Islamic State need more support. One of his officers — a retired Peshmerga officer named Sherda, who recently returned from England to fight — echoed this sentiment. Sherda insisted that it was their duty to protect all innocent people regardless of ethnicity or sect.
When War Is Boring visited Jalawla in June, Mjor Borham Mohamad — the Kurdish officer in charge of supplying Kurdish troops fighting in the city — said he had sympathy for the Sunni Arabs in the town, even members of the Karwy tribe — a tribe that moved to the area as part of the Ba’athist Arabization. By August, the Kurds had actually recruited some members of the traditionally hostile Karwy tribe to help track militants and gather intelligence. “Move forward people. There is no Saddam now, no Ba’ath party,” Ramiza proclaims. “There are Sunni and Shia and Kurds, who are fighting for positions and that’s it.”
But what will it take get the Kurds, Turkman, Shias, Christians, Yezidis and Sunnis to work together? “We need a superhero,” Darir puts forth jokingly. “When all Iraqis will be united against them, then ISIS will be finished,” he adds more seriously. He insists that the sooner that happens, the sooner the refugees will leave Kurdistan. “They are poor people, running away from death. They don’t want to change the demography of Kurdistan,” Darir says. “As soon as every thing is normal again they will go back to their cities. They are not happy to be far away from their neighbors, their childhood homes.”
But Kalan is skeptical. “They don’t, I am sure they don’t,” he says. He compares them to Kurdish refugees, who left for Britain in the 1990s. “[Do] you hear about those Kurdish coming back to Kurdistan? A little, very little return. Even before these problems they don’t come back. Why? Because Britain is better than Kurdistan. They want to stay in a better country.”
A Long Way from Home
“At any point he could ask us to leave, if he wanted to finish it or sell it he can ask us to leave.” Salam says of his family’s Kurdish benefactor as he stands in the small unfinished house they call home. He says that he doesn’t know what he would do if his family has find a new place to live. “We could rent a house for two months and then we would have no money left,” he explains. And he has no way of getting more money.
Salam used to work as a shuttle driver, driving people to work and school. He even still has his van — it’s parked outside the house — and he is more than happy to work and earn rent money. But he says that the Asayish told him only Arabs with a residency card are allowed to work. “We do not have a residency card, maybe this will mean we will have to leave Kurdistan. The residency card, you can only get it, if you have a Kurdish sponsor,” he says. “But because I don’t speak the language,” he laments, “I don’t know how make a Kurdish friend to be a sponsor, so it is very hard for us to do this.” Even so, Salam says that the people of Piramagrun have been good to him and his family. But he says that he is homesick. He is tired of living as a refugee. “We have not lived like this before, we do not have the things we need,” he says. “You can see are sitting on the dirty ground. We are not used to it.”
“Everybody, who left misses their house, their land, their neighbors, their home,” he says longingly. All he wants to do is go back to his home town. But until he can, he will stay wherever he can keep his family sheltered, fed and safe.