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Iraqi Shia Families Flee Death Threats in Kirkuk

Villagers given stark choice – run or be killed.
  • People who fled insurgent threats in Kirkuk, now living in southern Iraq. (Photo: Tahsin al-Zergani)
    People who fled insurgent threats in Kirkuk, now living in southern Iraq. (Photo: Tahsin al-Zergani)
  • People who fled insurgent threats in Kirkuk, now living in southern Iraq. (Photo: Tahsin al-Zergani)
    People who fled insurgent threats in Kirkuk, now living in southern Iraq. (Photo: Tahsin al-Zergani)

People driven out of Kirkuk by Sunni militants say they were lucky to escape with their lives.

Sabiha Jasim, 76, is living with her extended family in a mosque in Bder, a town near Diwaniyah south of Baghdad. They fled there from their village near the northern city of Kirkuk after armed men from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria swept in.

“The insurgents raided our village in a vehicle mounted with machine guns. They used loudspeakers to tell us to leave al-Zohur village within two days, and threatened to kill anyone who remained,” she said.

Most families in the village started collecting belongings to take with them. According to Jasim, many of them left before the two days were up, after four car bombings and the deaths of three young men. She and her family stayed on, hoping the insurgents would eventually leave.

However, attacks started even before the two-day deadline came. Armed men started breaking down the doors of houses in the village.

Jasim, her five sons, their wives and their children gathered in one room of the house. An insurgent kicked in the door, pointed a gun at them and said he was going to kill them.

Others arrived and shouted, “Why haven’t you left? Do you want to die? This room will be your tomb.”

“I went up to one of them and started pleading with him, telling him we didn’t even have the money to hire a car,” Jasim said. “I went to the oldest man – who was wearing strange clothing – and talked to him. He cursed and insulted me and told us to leave the house without taking any of our things.”

Jasim said they walked 40 kilometres until they saw a pickup truck on the road.

“We asked the driver to take us to Diwaniyah in southern Iraq because we have relatives there,” she said. “He wanted three billion dinars [2,700 US dollars]. We gave him the money once we reached our relatives’ home.”

Now in Bder, 40 kilometres east of Diwaniyah, Jasim’s extended family is too large for them to stay with their relatives, so they have had to join many other displaced people living in a mosque.

Another Kirkuk resident who has ended up in the town, Ammar al-Bderi, 29, told a similar story of intimidation and death threats.

The father of three narrowly escaped being killed twice before getting out of al-Zohur.

“While I was on my way home to get my family and take them to Diwaniyah, insurgents stooped me and asked for my ID. One of them ordered the others to kill me, but my mother pleaded with them. They accepted on condition we left all our furniture,” he said.

As the family was leaving, he was stopped again and it looked like this time he would be killed.

“My wife and mother started crying and pleading with them. They allowed us to go after taking our mobile phones, jewellery and money,” he said.

Iraqi and international organisations are now distributing aid to displaced people in Bder.

The head of the provincial council, Hakim al-Khazali, told IWPR that many religious and charity groups had promised shelter and food for the displaced families, while the council itself was awaiting government approval to release funds to help them.

As one refugee, Sadun Rahif put it, “Aid from the international organisations will mitigate our suffering, but it can never make up for what we’ve lost – our homes, crops and land are left to the insurgents,” he said. 

Tahsin al-Zergani is an IWPR contributor in Iraq.