by Kevin Knodell. He is a freelance journalist based in Tacoma, Washington, USA. He currently coordinates and edits War is Boring’s Iraq field coverage with an international team of journalists. You can follow him on twitter at @KJKnodell
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In February, fighting between Islamic State militants and the Iraqi army drove 41-year-old Salam, a Sunni Arab, from his home in Babil province. He fled with his family to the town of Salahadin, believing it to be safe. He was wrong: the Iraqi army collapsed, Islamic State captured the city of Mosul … and kept advancing. Salam and his family fled again — this time to the safest place he could think of: Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thousands of refugees had the same idea. Salam looked around for somewhere to live in the increasingly crowded autonomous region. No luck at first. He and his family were standing in front of a real estate office in the Kurdish village of Piramagrun when a local man approached them. The Kurd said he had an unfinished house where the family could stay. “He offered it to us to stay in for free,” Salam says. They have water for only a couple hours per day. They borrow electricity from the Kurdish neighbors. Salam says he and his family are incredibly thankful for the Kurds’ generosity. “The people around here, our neighbors, they are very kind and they are helping us by giving us ice, sometimes food. So they are very nice and hospitable,” he says.
But not all Kurds are as welcoming to Arabs as the people of Piramagrun. In many places, the refugees have been greeted with suspicion. Some Kurds see all of them as potential terrorists and after decades of oppression and displacement at the hands of Saddam Hussein, are unhappy to see them taking shelter in Kurdistan. Now, some people in the region fear that the fight against radical jihadists could morph into a race war between Kurds and Arabs.
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On November 19, a car bomb detonated in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, killing four and wounding ten or more. The blast shattered the relative safety the city has enjoyed for years — it was the first terrorist attack in the heart of Kurdish capital (though an earlier bombing in August 2014 hit the outskirts) since the war with the militants began. Kurdish officials said Islamic State was almost certainly the culprit — and acknowledged that there’s a strong possibility the bomber entered Kurdistan under the guise of being a refugee. Some Kurds took to the streets. Photos and video emerged on social media of Kurds vandalizing cars belonging to Arabs living in Erbil.
Many Kurds see this fight as a continuation of their blood feud with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athists. Some of Islamic State’s most efficient fighters are former members of Hussein’s army and intelligence services — men that carried out mass killings of Kurds in the 1980s and early 90s. But many of these Arabs have lived and worked in the Kurdish region since before Islamic State invaded. The war has torn apart what were once some of Iraq’s most diverse and tolerant communities. A lot of Kurds want to see the Arabs leave. At the same time, many Kurds who’ve taken in Arab refugees insist they have a duty to help them. In the midst of this debate, many Arabs are wondering what that means for their future.
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The Kurds vs Saddam Hussein
Iraq has always been a culturally diverse region, long before any borders were drawn. The various ethnic and religious groups often came into conflict over land and resources. But they would also often trade with each other, work alongside each other, intermarry, and formed mixed communities.
After World War I the British reorganized the former Ottoman Empire, including what would become Iraq. In 1921, the British installed King Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, a Syrian Hashemite monarch as the king of “The British Mandate of Iraq“. In 1932, the Kingdom of Iraq became independent nation. Iraq experienced a succession of military coups until 1968, when the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party took power. Throughout this turmoil, Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas and political activists in the north launched a series of insurrections against rulers in Baghdad. As a culturally distinct group, they had always felt as though they had been left out after the western powers divided up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ba’athists promoted the “Arabization” of Iraq’s resource rich northern provinces, encouraging Arabs to settle in cities and towns like Kirkuk. This sometimes meant forcing out Kurds and Turkmen who’d lived there for generations to make room. The Kurds pushed back, intensifying their struggle. But future Ba’athist ruler Saddam Hussein would prove unlike any other foe they had yet encountered. Hussein was an ambitious — and ruthless — Ba’athist party enforcer. Like most influential Ba’athists, he was a Sunni Arab. He had grown up in the ethnically mixed city of Tikrit. As an adult, he maneuvered his way into power in the Ba’athist party by spreading suspicion and fear, turning friends against each other, and killing anyone who stood in his way. He aggressively pursued the interests of his own Sunni Arab al-Bu Nasir tribe. He was an unabashed racist — he hated Shia Muslims, Jews, Turkmen, and Kurds. His rule was categorized by the ruthless repression of ethnic and cultural groups. He also exploited ethnic and tribal differences to pit opponents against each other while he consolidated his own power.
His rise to power became complete 1979 when he finally became Iraq’s ruler. Unsurprisingly, when Iran and Iraq went to war, most Kurdish fighters sided with the Iranians against Hussein. The Ba’athists ramped up Arabization efforts. In 1986, Hussein launched the al-Anfal Campaign, a brutal genocide aimed at ridding Northern Iraq of the Kurds. The campaign also targeted Iraqi Assyrians, Shabaks, Turkmens, Yazidis, Mandeans, and Jews. In 1988, Iraqi aircraft armed with chemical weapons to attack the Kurdish town of Halabja. It was the worst chemical weapon attack in history. His troops killed 5,000 Kurdish people. In all during the al-Anfal Campaign, as many as 182,000 people were killed, overwhelmingly Kurds. Kurdish refugees fled into the Iraqi mountains and to neighboring Turkey and Iran. Saddam Hussein continued to stockpile weapons and building opulent palaces in his own honor.
But then he invaded his oil rich neighbor Kuwait, leading to the Persian Gulf War. US-President George H.W. Bush deployed a massive American force to liberate Kuwait and crush the Iraqi Army. The US sent out radio broadcast encouraging Iraq’s southern Shia Arabs and Northern Kurds to rebel. Seeing Hussein weakened emboldened them enough to begin duel uprisings. To the rebels’ shock, the US didn’t push into Baghdad and pulled it’s forces back, leaving the Ba’athists in power. Hussein ruthlessly crushed the rebellion, once again driving the Kurds into the mountains. Helicopters strafed refugees as they tried to make their way north. At least, the no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan protected the refugees and allowed the Kurds to forge a new identity. For the first time in decades, they were able to build a home for themselves and they elected their own leaders. The Peshmerga also began organizing themselves into a regional defense force. They also formed their own security and intelligence agency, the Asayish.
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Being Arab In The New Kurdistan
In 2003, Kurdish Peshmerga fought alongside American paratroopers to help topple the Ba’athist regime. Since then, Iraqi Kurdistan has become increasingly more autonomous. The Kurds also gained power in Baghdad, electing representatives to the national parliament. As sectarian violence gripped the rest of the nation, Kurdistan flourished. The Kurds built schools, hotels, and night clubs. They courted international investment, particularly in the energy sector. As a relative beacon of stability, Kurdistan attracted Arabs looking to get away from the fighting. In particular it was popular for Iraqis working for coalition forces like interpreters, who often would spend off time there, or lay low when insurgents threatened them. But many Arabs came for other reasons.
Ramiza, a human rights worker, is a Sunni Arab who married a Kurdish man. They have two children. She’s lived in Kurdistan since 2010. Overall, she has a good life in Kurdistan. She has a loving and supportive husband, lots of friends, and a safe home for her children. But even though it’s now her home, she’s often felt like an outsider. “I remember that my first experience, you can’t really call it racism, but Kurds like to know you like them, that you respect their history and that you don’t like Saddam Hussein from the first conversation you ever have with them,” she explains. She says that when she began working at a foreign NGO’s office in Kurdisan, the other staff—all Kurds—wouldn’t reply to her “good mornings” and “hellos”. It wasn’t until two months later when she started speaking Kurdish that she got started to get a response.
She says Kurds are often very defensive. “Once they hear that you are Arab they’re like, ‘Hmm, so you like Saddam’. It’s like, no, we don’t all like Saddam and not all of us are Ba’athist and we respect you guys,” she explains. “But they wouldn’t take the step to know you or to have any conversation with you until you show a real attempt to speak Kurdish,” she says. Attitudes toward Arabs are often expressed in subtle ways. For instance, sometimes when Kurds don’t want to use the word “Arab”, they’ll instead say “the people who eat dates”. It’s a complicated dynamic, because there are many exceptions. “[It’s] not Arabs in general actually … it’s Arabs from Iraq, from this part of Iraq”, she explains. “Because Kurds have no problems with Arabs from Syria, from Lebanon, any other country. Just Iraq”.
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The Cab Ride From Hell
Dirar is a 24-year-old tech specialist from Kirkuk. His mother is an Iraqi Turkman and his estranged father is a Sunni Arab. His official paperwork identifies him as a Sunni Arab, but Dirar says he considers himself an Iraqi first. He lives and works in the Kurdistan.
“I was taking a taxi from Kirkuk to Sulaymaniyah when I got stopped at the Chamchamal checkpoint”, he recounts. This checkpoint is on the border of Iraqi-Kurdistan. “I had just been visiting my family in Kirkuk, because I [was] leaving the country for a few days for work”, he explains. “The security man at the checkpoint took my passport, my residency card and my Asayish card”, he recounts. The Asayish card, issued by the Kurdish security agency certifies that the Asayish have vetted him and don’t deem him a security risk. The Kurdish guard told the taxi driver to unload Dirar’s bags. He told the cabbie that Dirar would be staying at the checkpoint. But the taxi driver—also a Kurd—refused. “[He] said he would wait, even though he had a full taxi”, says Dirar.
Dirar asked the guard why he couldn’t pass. “I told him I have a job in [Kurdistan], I have lived there for a year, all of my possessions are there, even my home, everything!” But the guard seemed unmoved. Instead of taking Dirar’s card to the office for the regular security check, the guard put all of Dirar’s papers in his pocket. “I asked him what the problem is and he starts to shout at me”, Dirar recounts. When the Kurdish cabbie asked the guard what was going on he shouted at the driver, telling him he was just a taxi driver and that it was none of his business.
“I was worried that he might give my papers to a taxi going to Kirkuk and tell them to hand the papers to the Kirkuk checkpoint. This is what they do to Arabs sometimes”. Dirar explains, “It would mean that I would have to go back to Kirkuk and would not be allowed into Kurdistan and to Sulaymaniyah”. At one point the guard told Dirar he should return later, that maybe he would be in a good mood and give Dirar the papers back. The guard made him wait for an hour. The driver waited with him. Dirar ultimately made it through, and the Kurdish driver got him where he needed to go. But the incident left a bitter taste in his mouth. “It is things like this… that makes me want to leave the country to go to Turkey or Europe and not come back”, Dirar says. “My family all put pressure on me because they want me to leave Kirkuk, Iraq and Kurdistan and find a better life somewhere else”.
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Taking People In
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, as well as its most diverse. As a result, all of Iraq’s many ethnic groups and sects were represented in the refugee exodus when militants seized it in June. Iraqi Shias, Christians, and Yezidis fled fearing ethnic cleansing by the notoriously violent Sunni militants. But Sunni refugees also fled. Dirar explains that the Sunni Arabs are in a unique predicament. “Sunni people have a big problem with ISIS, because they kill everyone. They do not care about anyone”, he says. “The people have started to leave the cities because of both sides, because of ISIS and because the government bombs them. Both sides kill them”.
Bahari Taza, a small Kurdish village just a 20 minute drive from the frontline town of Jalawla, has taken in thousands of refugees. When War is Boring last visited Bahari Taza over 600 families were living there. When Islamic State seized Jalawla, it forced even more refugees to Bahari Taza.
The village head, Adnan Mohammed Ali, has made it a personal mission to care for the refugees. He’s spent his own money on food and supplies and urging his people to donate their time preparing meals for the refugees. The refugees find shelter wherever they can—whether it be in tents, unfinished construction sites, barns or any other space the people of Bahari Taza can spare. All around the town Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen refugees live side-by-side in these make-shift dwellings. Despite their differences, they all share the experience being displaced. War is Boring asked Ali why Bahari Taza had taken in all these people, many of them not even Kurds. Ali seemed confused by the question. He explained that as a human being, he didn’t see how he could do anything else.
Bahari Taza is just one of many communities to take in refugees. Some Kurdish families have opened their homes to Arab friends. Schools, mosques, and community centers have all become shelters for refugees.
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At the Sha’ab Chaikana — a tea house in Sulaymaniyah — Kurdish men frequently discuss the politics of the day as they play dominoes and backgamon and sip on their tea. The refugee situation is a common topic of discussion. Most express sympathy for the refugees. “All of Kurdistan is full of Arabs from the region, Christian, Muslim, Shia, Sunni all of the religions, and the Kurdish are known for helping. That’s a religious thing, a humanitarian thing”, Tofiq, a 41 year old journalist says. He says that he hopes that the Kurdish government is acting to help all those need help—regardless of where they’re from. Hussein, a local engineer, says he thinks they have an obligation to help the refugees. “We should help them because we were once refugees in the past”, he says. “So we know how they feel”.
But not everyone at the Chaikana agrees with this sentiment. Abdula, a 59 year old born and raised in Sulaymaniyah sees things very differently. “We are Kurdish. We want to separate from the camels and from the pigs—from the Arabs”, he tells War is Boring. “The Arabs, they do not have any culture. As a Kurd we have a culture”.
He’s not the only one. “I have had problems in taxis inside the city”, Dirar says. “I listen to them swearing at Arab people in the street, but because I can speak Kurdish they do not realize I am Arabic. … The taxi drivers are complaining about the refugees, because they say the rent gets put up because of them”, he explains. “The refugees will pay anything to get somewhere to live”.
Ramiza insists that that it’s unreasonable to blame the Arabs for driving up rates. “[If] I brought all my family from Baghdad to [Kurdistan] and I had money for that, I would pay $1.000 for an apartment, I would pay $5.000 a year for a private school”, she says. “I would do that and they [Kurds] would do the same because they have done the same. It’s not about me being Arab or them being Kurds”.
“The people think the Arabs make everything more expensive”, says Dirar. “Though really it’s the Kurdish people who own the property who are taking advantage of the Arab refugees.”