KALAK, IRAQ - Iraqi and international organizations are struggling to cope with the relocation of at least 500,000 of the 3.2 million residents of Nineveh Province, part of a wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) that further threatens the stability of the region and adds to the country's growing humanitarian woes.
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The mass exodus took place after the northern Iraqi city of Mosul - the capital of Nineveh Province - was taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over ten days ago.
Approximately 300,000 civilians traveled to the autonomous Kurdish region from elsewhere in the country, putting the figure of IDPs and refugees within the Kurdish enclave at 850,000.
Of those, 1,600 are currently residing Khazair camp, set up by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the UNHCR on the outskirts of the Kurdish region, Erbil.
“There will be sectarian violence until Shia and Sunni [learn to] live together,” said Khaled, a Kurd from Mosul who recently relocated to the camp. His friend Ali was adamant that Iraqis should reconcile and learn to coexist. The two men fled Mosul fearing their ethnicity could become a target for the Sunni insurgents.
Like Ali and Khaled, much of Mosul fled the city with only the clothes on their backs and their IDs, some by car and others on foot.
“We walked here. Even those with cars couldn’t move, so many went by foot,” said 60-year-old Khalida Yaseen from inside one of the tents provided by UNHCR. Yaseen reached the Khazair camp on June 10 with her family, including her ill husband. He had run out of his heart medication and was forced to wait for the camp’s mobile clinic to supply it. “If I don’t take my medicine I will die,” he said.
Yaseen explained that they did not have family or friends in Erbil and for this reason they had not been allowed to cross the checkpoint into the city. This is a safety measure implemented by the KRG. Falah Mustafa, the head of the Kurdish Department of Foreign Relations, explained that while Kurdish military forces had taken measures to protect vulnerable minorities on the outskirts of Mosul, the government had been obliged to take strict measures to protect the city. For that reason, he said, thousands of people fleeing Mosul were being kept out of stable Erbil.
“There is a security risk…that is why the decision is to have them [IDPs] somewhere close to Nineveh [city] instead of Erbil and Duhok so that we will not be vulnerable to any kind of security risk,” said Mustafa.
“We [KRG] had been telling everyone in the last several months that the situation in Nineveh was very serious, but no one seemed to take it seriously and now people have paid the price,” he added.
According Ahmad Sabah, a 22-year-old soldier, he and his fellow troops were indeed paying dearly. Their commanders fled their posts, and they were left with no direction.
“Maliki could not provide security for the people, the commanders were beaten and ran away – there was no one left,” said the young soldier. Sabah and his family had relocated to Khazair camp after spending four days in Erbil and realizing they could not afford to pay rent in the city.
“It is so dry here and we have a 20-day-old baby,” he said. The tiny baby slept wrapped in a white cotton blanket on the back of a van, her mother too scared to place her on the floor in case an insect crawled into her ear.
“Right now there are no services provided for children,” said Camp Manager Simon Ravelli.
According to Ravelli, the large and unexpected daily arrival of IDPs had proved a challenge for the organizations working on the ground.
“We don’t know how many will arrive every day so we need to react quickly to receive those people. First to register them and then to deliver the services,” he said, adding that camp capacity was almost at its limit and that plans had been made to set up a larger permanent camp able to house 8,000 people.
The great number of IDPs in the camp was in stark contrast to the single family that was there just over a week ago. The Iraqi army abandoned the city and according one father of a family of nine, average residents soon fled the city as well, fearing a bloodbath. “The big problem is not ISIS or the Iraqi army,” said the father, who preferred not to give his name. “The city is completely empty, there is no life.”
However, a number of Sunni IDPs have reportedly returned to Mosul, some out of necessity, others in the hope that life under ISIS would be better than under the Iraqi military, which is made up primarily by Shiites enlisted by Maliki.
A policeman at Khazair checkpoint confirmed that families had returned in search of the daily comforts they had been forced to leave behind, while others had been unable to afford rent in Erbil and had to travel back to Mosul. Virtually all urban IDPs interviewed by Protection Cluster Iraq in Erbil said they were unable to support themselves in their accommodation for more than a week, and some had been forced to beg to survive.
While a large number of IDPs are likely to remain in the Kurdistan region, adding up to an approximate total of 850,000 refugees and IDPs, the nostalgia for home is present in all corners of the Khazair camp. “We miss everything, our home, our family, our friends and our neighbors,” said one 52-year-old woman.
For Sabah, faith in the Iraqi army seemed to help with the daily burden of living in the camp. He was set in the belief that the Iraqi military would soon defeat ISIS, allowing him to return and once again join the army he says he was forced to desert.
“If they move fast and with the support of airstrikes I think they can defeat ISIS. They are strong and can control the situation,” said the soldier. “Then I will be the first to join the army again.”