Fleeing from ′IS,′ Iraqis left in limbo | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 03.02.2015
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Fleeing from 'IS,' Iraqis left in limbo

Iraqi families have come north to escape the "IS" advance, but as Sunni Arabs they are viewed with suspicion and must remain on the outskirts of Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk. Cathy Otten visited a camp in Laylan.

Under the strong winter sun in Laylan camp for displaced Iraqis, children who fled their homes in "Islamic State" (IS) territory play at building new houses out of colored card, watched over by aid workers.

Jasam is eight-years old and is not playing with the other children. He has just arrived along with his family after spending five months hiding from IS, occasionally sleeping in caves in the Hamrin mountains to the south of Kirkuk.

"Sometimes we just walked; sometimes we found a car that would take us some of the way," Jasam's uncle Muhammad, an oil worker from Baji in Salahaddin province, told DW. He was threatened by IS because he is part of the Jibouri tribe who oppose the group. He asked that only his first name be used.

boy in tent copyright: Cathy Otten

Scarred for life

Like other children DW met in Laylan camp, Jasam has already been scarred by the conflict. His left leg is covered in burnt red flesh from the ankle to the groin - the result of a barrel bomb dropped in July by the Iraqi army, his father Azhar says. "These are the people that should protect us," He says laughing. The bomb was meant to hit IS.

Last summer IS, who practice an extremist version of Sunni Islam, tore through Iraq and declared a new Islamic caliphate. But Sunni Arab families in Laylan have not benefited from IS control, and instead have nowhere to go.

Jasam's aunt, Samira, says the family will remain in the camp surviving off aid donations, rather than trying to enter the safer Kurdish cities. "They won't accept us there," she says.

Between the wire fences and lackadaisical guards, a small camp economy is growing for residents who don't believe they will go home. Muhammed's neighbor has set up a printer beside a whirring generator and sells printed documents on request. A man from Salahaddin ladles steaming bowls of chickpea broth for the equivalent of about 40 US cents to passers-by.

men in a group copyright: Cathy Otten

Keeping up that entrepreneurial spirit

"Maybe they are with IS"

Checkpoints throughout the Kurdistan region require Arab Iraqis to have a sponsor, or local person to vouch for them before they are allowed to enter cities, but the process became even harder in the wake of a terrorist attack in the Kurdish capital Erbil last November. Only last week, IS attacked the Kurdish peshmerga on fronts surrounding Kirkuk and an abandoned hotel in the center of town, fuelling suspicion toward IDPs.

Awat Muhammed Amin is a Kurdish member of Kirkuk's Provincial Council. He says the city, which is Kurdish-controlled but contested by Arabs and Turkmen, has taken in tens of thousands of displaced families, but capacity is limited. "We don't have the budget [to support them] or the places for them," he told DW.

Since the IS advance in Iraq began last year, over two million people have been displaced, more than 850,000 of them ending up in the Kurdistan region. In Kirkuk tens of thousands of displaced people live in rented accommodation, staying with friends, in abandoned buildings or in camps. Many of the camps' residents originally fled to the city, staying in schools and other government buildings before they were moved to Laylan.

Amin says that because Iraqis from all ethnicities and sides of the conflict are fleeing to Kirkuk, "sometimes within these people it is easy for terrorists to infiltrate."

"In some houses where these families have settled, you can find nine or 10 women with no men - so where are these men? Where are these husbands and sons? It is suspicious, maybe they are with IS."

Erin Evers, Iraq Researcher for Human Rights Watch, says that by undertaking ethnic profiling at checkpoints, Kurdish authorities are "absconding on their responsibilities to offer humanitarian assistance to people," citing the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement set out by the UN.

"Internally displaced persons have no place to go because they are trapped in the north by the Kurdish checkpoints, and then in the south by militias and in the west by IS, and then it is winter which just compounds the problem."

At the end of January, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) expressed concern that displaced families living in Kirkuk city were being evicted by the Asayish, the Kurdish police force, noting that 200 families had also been given eviction warnings.

Denied entry

baby in bucket copyright: Cathy Otten

Still oblivious to the terror wrought by IS

Hazbar Ilewi, 45, worked as a farmer growing oranges and lemons in his village near Muqdadiyah in Diyala province before IS began attacking. "We were stuck between IS and the Iraqi army," he says. They fled in September, flying a white flag above their convoy of cars to show they were civilians.

On the way to Kirkuk bombs began to fall, they say from Iraqi army aircrafts. Eighteen members of his family were crammed into his pick up, including Hazbar's son Mahmoud, 12 and Abdullah, 10 who sit beside him as he talks. Three of his sons and one daughter died in the attack. "They were sitting in the back near where the bomb hit," he says, gently laying out the ID cards of his dead children.

Mahmoud was left with shrapnel in his lung and wounds across his back. The family came to Laylan camp and Hazbar got permission to enter Kirkuk. Once there, he tried to take Mahmoud to the hospital in Sulaimaniyah for treatment.

"At the checkpoint they didn't let us enter, I showed them his back which was still bloody but they said no." Instead they visited the local doctor. "When they turned me away I felt bad because all of us are Iraqi so why not?"

Doctor Imad Nazr is working at the camp's clinic on the day DW visits. He says he is not familiar with Mahmoud's case, but that anyone who is injured or very sick can go to the hospital in Kirkuk in an ambulance.

Despite being denied entry at the checkpoints, Hazbar and his family are quick to praise the Kurdistan Region for its hospitality. Hazbar's uncle Sulaiman is 65 and looks after his 10-year-old granddaughter Nour. Her mother died in the same air raid; her father was later picked up by a Shia militia group and hasn't been heard of since. Sulaiman looks around his family's small tent. "This is the last safe place," he says.

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