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Ex-Erbil Citadel Residents Bemoan Relocation

Many of 800 families moved to preserve ancient site bitter about their transfer and claim they were inadequately compensated.
By Hogar Hasan
Mahmood Yasim’s childhood recollections of Erbil’s ancient fortress are the stuff of storybooks: clambering through crumbling palaces, playing in abandoned courtyards built in a bygone age and running amok in the labyrinths of winding, narrow alleyways.



“Everyone used to know each other back then. We were living in houses without permission and they were very old and part collapsed – but our life was good. We were close to everything – the bazaar, hospitals and schools as well,” said 20-year-old Yasim, who grew up with his seven siblings in the 8,000-year-old citadel.



One day in 2007, Yasim came home from school to discover that everything changed.



“I was told near my home that we had to move away. The government put patrols at each gate and they didn’t allow people to bring in food or gas for cooking. Nothing that we could buy with food ration coupons was allowed in,” Yasim said. “Many of us still did not believe that we would be moved away. But eventually we had to.”



More than two years after a government-mandated relocation, former occupants of the Erbil citadel complain of poor health services and economic opportunities in the resettlement area where they agreed to move, some ten kilometres outside of Erbil.



Roughly 830 families, many of whom had been squatting at the citadel for decades, were relocated to make way for its impending renovation. All of the families accepted the Kurdish government’s compensation offer of a 250-square-metre plot of land and 4,000 US dollars. At the time, residents say, they had little choice.



"They were tenants in the citadel,” explained Nawzad Hadi, governor of Erbil province. “The government gave them land and money for free. Public services have been provided for the new neighbourhood, like water, electricity, and schools. In future, a health centre will be built.”



Today, many of the residents of the suburb now known as Qalai Nwe, or New Citadel, bemoan the distance it takes to travel to town, the absence of a hospital and the lack of public transportation. Some say the neighbourhood lacks the sense of community they shared as squatters in the close-knit quarters of Erbil’s ancient fortress.



“We feel like strangers here,” said Aziz Ahmed Tahd, a 35-year-old shopkeeper.



On a recent visit to Qalai Nwe, children played in the streets in front of half-finished cinderblock homes. Others kicked a ball around a gravel lot as a street vendor pushed his cart.



“If you do not have a car here you might get sick and die before you can see a doctor,” said Amina Ahmed Ramazan, a 68-year-old grandmother who suffers from heart problems and diabetes. She depends on her son to bring her groceries and medicine each day from Erbil.



“It is like a cemetery here,” Ramazan said.



Several former residents interviewed by IWPR agreed that life was better back in the citadel. They said they didn’t mind the lack of basic utilities there - and all expressed heartfelt memories of their former home.



“Life in the citadel was wonderful and beautiful. It was high above the city and close to the bazaar. Life here is not like it was in the citadel. It is not nice and it is far away from the city,” said 18-year-old Nazifa Jafar. “All the memories I have [of the citadel] are nice and good, but from the moment they moved us away the happiness went away.”



According to Jafar, there was nothing coordinated about the move.



“People didn’t move away, they were moved away forcefully. They used loudspeakers at the mosques to tell us to move. People didn’t go all at once, they went slowly, one by one, until they were all gone,” she said.



Hadi denies that the former citadel residents were pushed out by the authorities, “People would say such things. It was not the way the citadel residents say. People are used to complaining. The residents themselves moved away. They were not moved away forcibly.”



The Erbil authorities insist the relocation was necessary. The citadel, the say, was structurally unsound - putting many in danger - and also lacked adequate water, power and sewage facilities.



Ramazan, sitting outside her home in Qalai Nwe, defends the city’s decision.



“When some houses on the outer wall collapsed, the government was worried that people might die, so they gave us some land and money to build houses on,” she said.



Even so, it was a tough situation, said Mohamed Djelid, country director for the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, the world body behind the Kurdish government’s campaign to renovate the citadel.



“The citadel is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. We need to protect it now because it was not done in the past. It was a really in a bad situation for the people living there – no water or electricity,” he said. “What the government did several years ago was put out all the inhabitants from the city. It was not as easy decision, but for us it was the right decision.”



Some former squatters are not sentimental about their former home. Taha Ahmed, 54, says the only good thing about the citadel was that it was close to Erbil’s bustling bazaar. He says he doesn’t miss the mice, snakes or the makeshift houses made of mud. Nonetheless, he feels the compensation offered by the authorities was inadequate.



“I haven’t been able to put down tiles or put stucco on the walls,” he said, gesturing towards a block of unfinished homes. “That is why so many houses look like this.”



Hadi insists, however, that the financial provision was adequate, “Why have some people in the neighborhood been able to finish their houses and some have not? The compensation was fair. It was more than enough.”



Tahd, the shopkeeper, says that lately problems with the water supply and the lack of a nearby hospital have angered some local residents.



“The neighbourhood needs another well. Thank god, we have roads, schools and two mosques,” he said. “We have also been promised an emergency room and a birthing centre – but we are still waiting.”



For the former citadel residents, news that their former home is set to become a tourist attraction filled with coffee and curio shops was met with shades of apathy and disbelief. Ahmed, who admitted he wept openly upon learning that he would be moved from the fortress, said the new plan meant little to him.



“That doesn’t benefit me one bit,” he said bitterly. “Those shops will be no help at all.”



Hogar Hasan is an IWPR Iraq local editor. IWPR-trained reporter Najeeba Mohammed contributed to this story.

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