Beyond the Barbed-Wire Fence

“Where are you from?” I ask 13-year-old Faisel, as we take cover from the baking sun in a small shop in this camp for displaced families.

“Over there,” he says, pointing past the barbed wire. “That’s my house.”

Faisel tells us how he came to live here, within sight of his childhood village. As he talks, friends and relatives gather around, often chiming in. His story is typical in this section of the camp. Their homes are empty, close by and forbidden.

The story of how he ended up here began in 2014, says Faisel.

“When Islamic State militants came to our village, Kurdish forces attacked them,” he explains. “The militants said we would all be killed by the bombs, so we fled to Mosul.Then during the liberation, we ran away from the war and they took us to this camp.”

When he says “the liberation,” he means the bloody battles where Iraqi, Kurdish and coalition forces crushed IS militants along with many homes and businesses in northern Iraq. At least a million people were displaced. Many, like Faisel, had to flee several times.

He has been in this camp more than a year and half, staring at his house beyond the wire. We are in the Khazir area, a swath of fields and gentle hills, midway between Irbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, and Mosul, Iraq’s second city, governed by Baghdad.

Over the years, both Irbil and Baghdad have controlled this area, but it is currently held by the Kurds. As in many parts of northern Iraq, each government has claimed the land as its own, and even some of the people who live here are not sure who is right.

“We are hopeless,” adds Faisel’s friend, 16-year-old Yahiya Ibrahim. “The authorities won’t let us move.”

Ethnic displacements

“Which authorities won’t let you?” I ask, baffled. Camp officials say they are struggling to support the hundreds of thousands of people still displaced. “Why wouldn’t they want you to go?” I ask.

“We told the peshmerga we wanted to go to our homes,” says Abdullah, 27, a father of three who works at the shop. “But they said no. They didn’t say why.”

This story, Abdullah adds, started decades before.

In other parts of the camp, families from Mosul are allowed to go home, but they say there is little in their battle-scarred neighborhoods to return to.

The difference is, according to the young men in the shop, families from Mosul are Arabs going back to an indisputably Arab area. These young men are Arabs, too, but their Kurdish-held villages are in dispute.

Even the border between the Kurdistan region and federally controlled Iraq is not a specific place. In the past 15 years, Kurdistan has expanded its territories, but last year Iraqi forces swiftly grabbed much of the lands back.

And a few kilometers away at a peshmerga base, General Kamel Majid confirms the young men’s account.

“If it were up to the peshmerga, we would send all the families home,” he says. “But it’s a matter bigger than one family. It impacts the entire region.”

A long conflict continues

“How does it impact your region?” I ask Majid, as the temperature edges toward 40 C inside his office.

He recalls Baghdad’s Arabization policy intensifying in the 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to flee their homes in the following decades. In their place, Arab families were brought in.

Iraq’s 2005 constitution set a deadline to settle governance of the disputed areas. But that deadline expired more than a decade ago.

A committee to apply the constitution exists, says Abdulfattah Botani, a Kurdish author and historian. “They have not even applied one point,” he explains in a phone interview. “There are no obstacles or challenges, but applying it would not benefit Baghdad. It would return a lot of areas to the Kurdistan Region.”

And ordinary families, both Kurdish and Arab, continue to be victims of the larger political dispute, he says. The result is that in areas claimed by both Kurdish and Arab authorities, there are many empty or destroyed cities, towns and villages and a festering distrust that regularly turns violent.

“This is the problem,” says Majid. “They are not willing to apply the constitution, and it has made tensions grow between Irbil and Baghdad.”

Arab or Kurdish? How about both or neither?

“Are there families living in any of the villages around the camps?” I ask a colleague as we drive from the base toward remote hills off the highway.

Soldiers at a peshmerga checkpoint answer my question. “Some people live over that way,” they say, pointing to a quiet dirt road. 

We drive into the village, and at first it appears abandoned. Then we see a few pieces of freshly laundered clothes drying in the wind.

A boy in a purple gym top appears at a gate. “Where is the mokhtar?” my colleague asks in Kurdish, referring to the neighborhood leader.

The boy stares blankly. My colleague asks again in Arabic.

“This way,” says Hassan, 13, leading us to a house on the slope of a sandy hill. Hassan tells us he is Kurdish, but he went to an Arabic school, and does not speak Kurdish. A trail of other boys join in the walk to see the mokhtar, who, it turns out, is not at home.

“Are all of these children Kurdish but speak only Arabic?” I ask Abbas, the mokhtar’s brother, as he steps outside to join us. Like the children, Abbas is also Kurdish but speaks in Arabic.

“Yes,” he says, laughing. It is part of the charm of his village. Irbil and Baghdad both have claimed this area, and Abbas claims both governments as his own. The boys set up red plastic chairs under an awning, and Abbas tells us about his village.

Before IS took over, some 80 families lived here, he says. They scattered during the war, but eventually most of the Kurdish families returned. Many of the Arab families are still in the camps, without permission to return.

And although it lies in Kurdish-controlled territory, the village is governed by both Arab and Kurdish authorities. The fact that both authorities claim responsibility for the village is an advantage, says Abbas. 

“After the war we had no electricity,” he explains, smiling. “Mosul provided us poles, and Irbil provided electricity.”

The benefits of having two governments, however, are offset by having half of his neighbors stuck in camps.

“Before, I would sit in this place and my friends would come over,” says Abbas. “Now I just sit alone.”

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