Displaced Iraqis escape fighting but not hardship

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 03:12 PM

NAJAF, Iraq — Abbas Mohammed Habib was born into Iraq's rapidly expanding world of the displaced.

His mother, Laila Ali, was among tens of thousands of Shiite Turkmens driven from their homes when Islamic extremists captured the northern town of Tal Afar. Nine months pregnant, she fled with her husband and four young children, eventually squeezing into a bus for a 16-hour trip across the desert. They went an entire day without food or water.

As the extremist Islamic State group plowed across northern Iraq, centuries-old communities of religious minorities — some viewed as apostates by the Sunni militants — fled for their lives. Christians and Yazidis headed to the north, where many found refuge in the largely autonomous Kurdish region.

But the Turkmens, an ethnic group with historic ties to neighboring Turkey, said they were turned away by the Kurds, who fear that such an influx would dilute their majority and undermine their ambition of one day having an independent state. So some 50,000 Shiite Turkmens instead headed south to the holy city of Najaf, believing like so many other Iraqis that they would only be safe among those who share their faith.

In Najaf they have security, for now, but little else.

The local hospital provided a onesie for Abbas to wear when he was born two weeks ago — but he will quickly outgrow it. The family has no other clothes or medicine, and relies on food handouts from a local charity. Abbas, his sisters and brothers are swollen with ant bites from sleeping on the floor of a mosque.

Laila's husband, Mohammed Habib Elias, 35, made a decent living as an electrician back in Tal Afar but said he is quickly running out of money and cannot find work in Najaf.

"We realize that the situation will not get better soon," he said. "So we have now to think about schools and renting a home. We don't know how we will afford that."

The U.N. said Thursday that in recent weeks more than 66,400 displaced people have settled in Najaf, which ordinarily has a population of around 750,000. Refugees are packed into the Husseiniyahs, or Shiite prayer halls, that line the streets of the holy city. Cars bearing the license plates of northern Ninevah province, seized by the insurgents in June, are parked out front.

Trucks come around once a day delivering jugs of drinking water, but the displaced say it isn't enough to stay hydrated in the scorching heat. The children, many of whom speak Turkmen as a first language and know little Arabic, cannot attend school and instead sleep through most of the stifling day, when the ants allow it.

Louay Jawad, a local councilman in Najaf, told The Associated Press that most of the displaced do not even have their official documents, and that there is an urgent need for support from Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has allocated more than $800 million to aid the internally displaced, but with no end in sight to the crisis, officials say those funds won't last long.

"We should expect that the refugees might stay for a long time in Najaf given the current military situation in Iraq," Jawad said. He said the city is planning to build low-budget housing units for the displaced people in coordination with the United Nations and the Iraqi government.

The Turkmen community is Iraq's third-largest ethnic minority, after the Arabs and Kurds, and until the latest crisis it was concentrated in the north, were the Kurds have been locked in longstanding disputes with Baghdad over territory and oil. The Kurds have long viewed the Turkmens with suspicion, seeing them as a proxy for neighboring Turkey, which is against Kurdish independence and has long been embroiled in a conflict with its own Kurdish minority.

Several displaced Turkmens said they were only allowed to transit through the Kurdish region, or were refused entry by Kurdish peshmerga forces. A spokesman for the peshmerga did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. is also opposed to a Kurdish state but has been a close ally of the Kurds dating back to the first Gulf War in the 1990s. This week it carried out a humanitarian aid lift to tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi minority encircled on a desert mountaintop in northern Iraq and launched airstrikes on Islamic State fighters threatening the Kurdish regional capital Irbil.

Kurdish forces from Iraq and neighboring Syria later managed to help the Yazidis, who are ethnic Kurds, escape. The Kurdish region is hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced, including large numbers of Christians.

But the Turkmen refugees in the south say they have received little aid from the Kurds, the Iraqi government or anyone else.

"They keep slaughtering us and the government just sits and watches," said a sobbing Hanan Moustafa, another resident displaced from Tal Afar, referring to the Islamic extremists. She fled with her family to the Kurdish region, but said they were turned away.

"When we got to the border, the peshmerga pushed us away. They said 'No Turkmens allowed.'"

Mohammed Nour owned three houses, two cars and a large farm in Tal Afar. Unlike many of his fellow townspeople, he was able to fly his family from Irbil to Najaf after the Kurds allowed him to transit.

But the money only got him so far. Now his children play with toys donated by local religious charities. His one-year old grandson Mohammed's face and body are puffy with ant bites. He appears sick but the family cannot afford to take him to a doctor. His 11-year-old sister can barely see. In the rush to escape Tal Afar her eyeglasses fell off, and the family cannot afford to replace them.

Nour grabbed a burlap sack and dumped its contents on the floor: three potatoes and two eggplants. "That is it," he said, as his eyes filled with tears. "This is all I can give them."