Sectarian divisions haunt Iraq refugees
DOHUK, Iraq – Inside a school in this northern Kurdish province, Mohamed Yousef recalls the day when ISIS entered the city of Sinjar.
“First, they went to the two Yazidi temples and the Shia mosque and blew them up,” said the high school teacher.
Then the Sunni-based terrorist army “created a committee” to execute “the Yazidis, the peshmerga, police and Kurdish security. … They divided the men from the women and took the women from 12 years to 35 years.
“I saw them take 24 women away. I don't know where they are.”
Yousef, 40, lives in the school with 372 other Yazidis, a tiny sect forced to flee as ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — seized much of northern Iraq; they and other Muslim or Christian refugees fill schools and other buildings across the province.
He hopes the peshmerga, or Iraqi Kurdish militia, backed by U.S. and Iraqi forces, will retake Sinjar. But “the problem is not being a refugee; it is going back,” he said.
“If you are Yazidi, ISIS will kill you. If you are Christian, they will force you to pay the jizya,” an ancient tax on non-Muslims. “If you are Sunni, they won't kill you.
“When we return, that sectarian idea will still haunt us.”
In June, ISIS swept across the border with Syria and seized northern towns and villages; it stole millions from Iraqi banks and captured U.S. military equipment abandoned by Iraqi troops. Despite American airstrikes in the past month, it still holds a wide swath of land.
Its mass executions of soldiers and civilians, enslavement of women, and crucifixion or beheading of captives sent more than a half-million Iraqis streaming into the nation's semi-autonomous Kurdish state.
The United Nations estimates 1.2 million refugees across Iraq.
‘People ran away'
Dohuk's governor, Farhad Atrushi, set up a committee to help the first wave of refugees after ISIS seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June.
But in August, as ISIS pushed to the outskirts of the Kurdish capital, Irbil, “the whole security situation collapsed, and people ran away from Sinjar and all the towns and cities around Mosul,” Atrushi said. “I started receiving thousands and thousands of people,” more than 118,000 in three days at one checkpoint.
Dohuk, with a population of 1 million, now has 600,000 refugees, he said. Some live with relatives or friends, others in churches, schools, abandoned buildings and parks.
“I have to find shelter for 40,000 families, and that is not an easy job,” he said.
“We need water, electricity, sanitation, health care, security, vaccines, and the big problem for us is feeding all these people. … (They) are not well vaccinated, (and) we are worried about a spread of diseases to our own people.”
He needs “$200 million to build tent camps. The whole budget for all of Dohuk for one year is $200 million.”
Iraq's central government cut off money to the Kurds in February.
Risk for women, girls
Trauma among refugees is another enormous problem, according to Sherizaan Minwalla, an International Rescue Committee coordinator. Most have heard reports of women being raped, forced into jihadist marriages with ISIS fighters or sold as slaves.
“Everyone is so traumatized from the flight, from leaving family members behind, from witnessing executions. … The men are very stressed out, and sometimes they take it out on their wives and female relatives,” she said.
She expects the crisis and the “increased risk for women and girls” to continue.
Atrushi hopes other countries will help, despite donor fatigue from conflicts in the Middle East and worldwide.
“They have to bear in mind that the Yazidis are a unique religion – one of the oldest religions on earth – and they exist only in Dohuk and Ninevah provinces,” he said, estimating they number no more than 500,000.
‘Islamic police force'
Atheel al-Nujaifi, Ninevah's governor, fled to Irbil when ISIS swept into Mosul. People in that captured city once considered ISIS to be “superhuman,” he said, but “now they think they are weaker, so they attack them and cause them problems.”
ISIS's destruction of mosques and other holy sites, and its brutality toward Christians and Yazidis, stiffened the resistance in Mosul, he said; army officers have formed “sleeper cells” and await the “critical time” to fight back.
Yet they face a tough fight, he conceded: ISIS has formed an “Islamic police force” and uses Mosul as a staging base.
After U.S. airstrikes hit ISIS positions around Mosul's all-important dam, ISIS denounced the “Kurdish-Crusader alliance” – a reference to the medieval Christian crusades, often cited to rally Muslim extremists.
Al-Nujaifi described that as an effort “to create a fight between the Arabs and the Kurds,” in order to divert attention from Arab opposition to ISIS.
“ISIS, at the end of the day, is a Sunni Arab problem,” said Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish political analyst. “In the absence of them solving this problem, ISIS will continue.”
Yet Ninevah's governor remains optimistic: “I believe ISIS will not stay in Mosul when this resistance grows.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent.