Refugees demand camps divided on ethnic lines

  • Date August 15 2014
  • Publication The Times

The sectarian divisions that threaten to tear Iraq apart are shaping the country’s humanitarian response, with refugee camps split along ethnic lines.

In Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has one of the highest numbers of refugees, Christians driven from their homes have gravitated to the area’s churches, where volunteers have set up temporary accommodation across every inch of churchyard.

Strangers sleep barely a metre apart, separated by canvas tent walls. There is no lighting, but residents say they are not worried about safety. “Most of us are from the same towns,” said a young mother. “And, of course, we’re all Christians.”

Twenty minutes away, in Bahirka, a UN camp for Syrian refugees that is rapidly being expanded for displaced Iraqis contains no Christians. Of the 500 or so families here, 150 are Kakai, a sect of about a million people, and another 150 are Shabak, or Shia Kurds. There are also some Shia Turkmen and a few Sunni Arabs.

“I think there’s a problem here between Kakai and Shabak, and the Arabs,” said Husein Ziwa, a Kakai father of six from Qaraqosh. “People ask why we should live with Arabs, when they are the cause of what happened to us.”

A Sunni Muslim man named Salam ambled over in a stained traditional robe and a pair of cracked plastic sandals. He insisted that he felt comfortable among so many people from other sects. “All the poor people of Iraq are brothers — Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Turkmen, Kakai,” he said.

However, his face betrayed an uncertainty, and after he and the other men left, a teenager voiced his misgivings. “We Sunnis have problems everywhere. Problems in my hometown, Mosul, with the government. Problems here too. Everyone gives you that look.”

It was not ideal to see communities taking shape along sectarian lines, said an aid worker at Bahirka, but it was understandable. “Recently, a group of Yazidis realised we had hired a Muslim chef to cook for them. They rejected him. It’s about cultures, backgrounds.”

Nawzad Hadi, the governor of Arbil, said there was no plan in place to settle like with like. He works with international organisations with a humanitarian mandate to offer aid in a transparent, equitable way — but he admits the realities of a sectarian war are difficult to avoid.

“We have to respect individual desires; what they’ve been through — think of how you would feel,” he said. “So the Christians want to live in Ankawa. We just can’t tell people what to do.”

Outside help is needed, Mr Hadi said. “We need a warranty from the US and the EU to eliminate Daash [the Islamic State, or Isis]. Until we can do that, these people have a right to be scared.”

Yazan Babaallos, the deacon of one of the churches in Arbil, suggested that sectarian suspicions were not universal: only Christians sought refuge in his church, but Muslims were among his biggest donors. “Some of the Sunnis and Shias who come by with donations are so generous, I just can’t accept all they offer,” he said. “We all live in a country named Iraq. There is still hope.”