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Bleak Prospects for Kurdish Returnees

Former Kurdish residents of Kirkuk are being encouraged to return - but for many the homecoming has been a big disappointment.
Laylan, a tented encampment on the outskirts of Kirkuk, is home to Kurdish returnees who left places like Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Ramadi to start new lives.

But their initial optimism at returning to their former home is beginning to wane, as many feel let down by the local authorities who appear to have done little assist them.

At the makeshift Tirkashkan primary school, 36 students attend lessons under canvass.

“Because we don’t have enough space, four different lessons are taught at any one time by four different teachers,” said Ihsan Shareef, the 36-year-old head teacher.

“It’s difficult [for the students] to concentrate, and the conditions will badly affect the students’ education.”

Poor education is not all the returnees have to contend with. The water and electricity supply is poor, so too is the sewage system. And with violence in Kirkuk increasing, returning families hopes of a new life are evaporating.

As many as 200,000 Kurds and Turkoman were expelled from Kirkuk in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein’s regime brought Arabs into the province. The settlers - many poor Shia farmers from the south - consolidated the Ba’ath regime’s grip over the oil-rich province.

Under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, Kirkuk voters are expected to decide whether the province is administered by the central government or the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG.

Before the vote is held, a voluntary resettlement process is to be carried out, giving returning Kirkukis the right to land and 10 million Iraqi dinars (about 8,200 US dollars) in compensation, while those who settled in Kirkuk under the former regime’s Arabisation campaign are entitled to 20 million dinars and a plot of land in their places of origin.

Approximately 25,000 to 30,000 Kurdish families have come back to Kirkuk since 2003, according to the KRG’s Office for Settlement and Compensation, which coordinates the return of Kurds.

But few Arabs have moved out and only 2,000 land disputes have been settled in the province, according to Kaka Rash Sadiq, a senior Kirkuk municipal official.

Sadiq said that no Kurdish families have received compensation and are unlikely to until at least February 2008. Compensation is first given to the Arab settlers, and their cases have to be resolved before Kirkuki returnees receive their stipend and land, said Sadiq.

About 1,750 Arab families have be granted compensation, and more than 3,500 Arab families have submitted paperwork to return to their provinces of origin, said Mohammed Khalil Jabbouri, another Kirkuk city official.

The resettlement is expected to dramatically change Kirkuk’s demography and land ownership. Violence, including massive car bombs, has destablised the area, prompting the postponement of the referendum until at least May 2008.

Encouraged by Kurdish parties, exiled Kurdish Kirkukis began returning in 2003. The wealthier among them began purchasing properties, but thousands of poor returnees still languish in camps inside and outside the city.

The camps lack infrastructure and services such as medical care, schools, running water, power, paved roads and sanitation.

“We didn’t expect these very difficult circumstances when we came back,” said Rasool Abdullah, 48, a representative of Kirkuki Kurdish returnees who live in the city’s football stadium. About 500 families call the stadium home.

The central and local governments have neglected Kirkuk as a whole, complain residents, and the returnees are putting additional pressure on already limited services.

“The government ignores the city’s services,” said Sami Jamal, a 44-year-old local. “It spends massive amounts of money every year in the name of service projects, but we don’t see any results … and as the population increases, the level of services in the city declines.”

The Kirkuk provincial council and the municipal authorities do not have enough funds to provide everyone with services, said Sadiq.

The worst off are the returnees.

Habeeb Rozhbayani, director of the Settlement and Compensation Office, said, “The government isn’t giving enough land [to returnees], and the areas in which they live lack many services."

Dilshad Peerot, an independent member of Kirkuk Provincial Council’s reconstruction and public services committee, said that the KRG, which helped facilitate the return of displaced Kurdish families, is providing much of the limited support for them.

Critics say the Kurdish parties have pushed Kirkuki Kurds to return in part to gain political control of the province and its oil resources. In April, the International Crisis Group issued a report on resolving the Kirkuk crisis that criticised Kurdish authorities for “using various incentives, some bordering on blackmail, to encourage displaced Kirkukis to return home”.

The report quoted a Kirkuki Kurd living Erbil who said the Kurdish government would not issue his newborn son a birth certificate unless he moved back to Kirkuk. He said he did not want to return because of the poor services there.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party has pledged to give returnee families who resettle in the villages around Kirkuk 10,000 dollars each, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has given some families 5,000 dollars.

But there are plenty of returnees who’ve received nothing.

Rebwar Rash, 31, a Kurdish returnee living in the football stadium, said the Kurdish parties have not kept the promises they made to support returnees.

"People are staying in this camp because we love Kirkuk. The Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan haven’t given us financial support,” he said.

Among the poor returnees, those not in camps are either squatting in empty buildings, illegally tapping electricity lines and water mains; while others have built homes without permits.

The local government began cracking down on the squatters last year but backed off when Kurdish parties, which hold substantial power in Kirkuk, intervened.

When he returned to Kirkuk, Muhammed Ghareeb, 35, who spent years in exile in Iran, chose to build a house without a permit because he could not find any housing.

"I tried not to resort to illegal measures to get a plot of land, but I was forced to. We have to provide everything ourselves. We can wait for the government to do something, but it won’t."

Yahya Barzanji contributed to this story from Sulaimaniyah.

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