Iraq

Caught Between Army And Islamists, Fleeing Syrian Kurds Flood Into Iraqi Kurdistan

Though Kurdish Syrians have largely avoided any involvement in the country's civil war, they are now caught in the middle and fleeing in droves. A visit to the refugee camp in Iraq.

Syrian children fetch water at Kawergost Refugee Camp, some 50 km north of Erbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Syrian children fetch water at Kawergost Refugee Camp, some 50 km north of Erbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Guillaume Perrier

ERBIL — A pickup truck pierces through the dust cloud and stops at the camp’s entrance. It’s followed by a line of other vehicles arriving from Syria. It is clumsily packed with a family of eight, some blankets, pieces of furniture and an air-conditioning unit. Dozens of troops of the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s army, are trying to contain the new arrivals.

At the edge of huge oil fields, “at least 15,000 people have already arrived in two days” in the Kawergosk camp, located between Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, and Mosul, according to town Mayor Djamal Martik.

“We have to stop this influx and send them to other camps,” the overwhelmed mayor insists.

As far as the eyes can see, thousands of tents — provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — and as many families are roasting under the blazing sun. Many still remain without a shelter. “We’ve been waiting for three days,” says Jiwan, a Kurd from Qamishli, as he sits with his wife and young daughter in the two square meters of shade that their luggage provides them. All around, vehicles are transporting people and supplies. From the back of one truck, soldiers toss watermelons to a group of children.

Since Aug. 17 when Kurdish Iraqi authorities opened the border, more than 40,000 Kurdish refugees have crossed over from Syria, the Regional Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Falah Mustafa Bakir explains. In total, more than an estimated 200,000 people have arrived in the Kurdish region, according to official figures.

“The numbers were lower than in neighboring countries, so it didn’t draw that much attention,” Bakir says. “Now the problem has gone far beyond our capacities.” Iraqi Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani, who visited the Kawergosk camp on Aug. 20, has appealed to the international community for help.

Caught in a vise

“The worst off are those still over there,” a young refugee says, standing on top of a van. For the past week, those who have escaped Syria’s Kurdish region by the thousands relate the despair of the whole region. Until now, it had largely been spared the worst effects of the war.

The Rojava — the name of the Kurdish Syrians’ region — is increasingly isolated. “The border with Turkey is closed off to us, even though we live 500 meters away,” says Mustafa, an old man who arrived from Qamishli. Even though they avoided involvement with the Syrian regime or with the rebel brigades, Kurdish Syrians are now caught in a vise.

“Our village has been bombed by the regime,” says Fatma, who with her friend Djamila are from Rmeila, northern Syria’s oil production center. A larger number claim to have fled more frequent attacks on Kurds by the radical Islamist groups, the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

For more than a month, violent clashes between these jihadist groups and Kurdish fighters of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Marxist movement founded by Abdullah Öcalan — have been shaking the whole region. In Kobani, Afrin, Ra's al-"Ayn or in Tal Abyad, the Kurds claim to have repelled their attackers and killed hundreds of men during these clashes.

“These armed forces are terrifying civilians, which explains this exodus,” says Ibrahim Bro, secretary of the small Kurdish Syrian party Yekiti. “But tensions between Kurdish parties are also a cause of this situation. There’s fierce competition between Masoud Barzani and Abdullah Öcalan’s supporters. They’re both trying to impose their own model upon the Kurdish Syrians. And the PKK, just like the Ba'ath party, wants to impose a single-party system.”

This is also the opinion of Abdel Hakim Bashar, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, affiliated with Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. He thinks “the civilians are also fleeing the PYD’s policies.”

The party, the most popular and the most organized among the nebula of Kurdish Syrian movements, “insists on controlling the humanitarian aid and refuses to work with anyone,” Bashar says. The attempts to unify the views of Syria’s Kurdish National Council — which counts more than 20 movements — and of the PKK branch have been unsuccessful.

“The Kurdish house has to be put back in order,” Bashar says.

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