Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kurds Find Northern Resettlement Tough

People who moved north to their original homeland to escape intimidation in the Sunni Arab heartland meet suspicion and indifference.
By Wirya Hama-Tahir

Hundreds of Kurdish families who fled from Iraq’s Sunni triangle earlier this year say they have had a hard time resettling in the northern Kurdish areas – but they have no plans to go back to towns like Fallujah where they faced threats from extremists.

Karim Abdul-Rahma is one of many Kurds displaced in the first round of fighting in the Sunni Arab city of Fallujah in spring 2004.

“When our house in Fallujah was half-destroyed by an insurgent mortar attack, we packed up and moved to Kurdistan,” he told IWPR.

After the family moved north, their eldest son was killed in a car crash as he followed them north.

Now Abdul-Rahma has no plans to return to his old home in the south.

“We only planned to leave for three months so as to let things settle down,” he explained. “But we won’t go back now, no matter what happens. Even though I can’t find a job here, at least we are safe.”

Most of the families who have fled Fallujah in the past few months see no way back because they felt so intimidated there, and plan to stay on in the Kurdish region.

Said Majid Majeed told IWPR, “We felt completely alienated. After living in fear of Saddam for 25 years, suddenly we were being threatened by Islamic militants instead.”

Majeed sold his house in Fallujah for less than its market value and bought a property in the town of Kalar, south of Sulaimaniyah, where he and his family now intend to stay.

Families like these were originally forced out of their Kurdish homeland by the Baathists in the Seventies, following the collapse of a long-running Kurdish revolt. Their homes were confiscated and they were sent to live in camps around Ramadi and Fallujah.

While most still speak Kurdish and consider themselves true Kurds, they have received a less than warm welcome since returning to their region of origin. Instead of greeting them as fellow-Kurds, local people have treated them with suspicion, addressing them in Arabic rather than Kurdish.

Majeed’s wife says the famility have received no help from the local authorities since they arrived. As it is too dangerous for them to go back to Fallujah to collect the food rations due to them, they are struggling to make ends meet.

“My husband can’t get a job. Things aren’t great here either,” she concluded.

Nevertheless, since the Abdul-Rahma and Majeed families have been able to buy homes, they are in a better position than many other Kurdish refugees from the Sunni triangle.

Some 26 families who fled Ramadi several months ago are still living in a makeshift camp on the Banabora plain close to the Iranian border. Living conditions are poor, and the lack of adequate sanitation leads to frequent outbreaks of typhoid and diarrhea.

Twelve-year-old Pshtiwan Salih was in sixth grade at a Ramadi primary school when his family left the town. He has not attended school since he was displaced to the Kurdish region. “I hate it here,” he said. “We live in tents, we’ve got no school to go to and we’ve all been sick. My kidneys hurt all the time.”

One of the adult refugees in the camp, Azim Muhammed, says that while things may be bad there, the families had no choice but to leave Ramadi, “We were receiving death threats from Arab extremists there. They said that we were cooperating with the United States, and that killing a Kurd was the same as killing an American.”

Hamza Muhammed is just 15 and by rights he should be at school, but instead he travels to the nearby town of Darbandikhan every day to work in the municipal administration.

“We thought that if we went to Kurdistan our lives would be better. We were driven out of our homes because we were Kurds, but nobody here wants to know us,” he said.

With no school to go to, many other children spend their days making the long walk to the Sirwan river to collect water for their families. Two children from the camp have already drowned in the river while trying to fill jerry-cans.

Abdulla Garmian, a representative from the Kurdish regional government’s human right ministry in Sulaimaniyah, made it was clear that the priority was to help survivors of the Anfal – the Baathist regime’s genocidal attacks against the Kurds - and only then would his office turn to the other task with which it is charged: helping displaced people.

Garmian said the authorities were working with United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross to help some of the refugee families, but warned, “Our priority is still to deal with people affected by the Anfal. Once they are taken care of, we will be able to help the families from Fallujah and Ramadi.”

But for Ramadi refugee Muhammed Salih and others in the Banabora camp, that assistance might come too late.

“If they don’t help us soon, the cold and rain are going to make conditions here even worse. We can’t spend the winter living in tents with children who are already sick,” said Salih.

Wirya Hama-Tahir and Amanj Khalil are IWPR trainees.