To visit Iraqi Kurdistan now is to see the duality of life in the region unfold in real time.
As US-backed Peshmerga forces prepare for a fierce battle to take back Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, life unfolds at the mellow pace associated with the region: Families go to buffet-style restaurants, markets throb with shoppers, and shisha cafes spill on to sidewalks.
“Resilience” is an almost meaningless word here – they’ve been fighting for so long, it’s hard to recall what recovery looks like. But even in a place where punches are rolled with, one might expect a slightly heightened sense of danger, given that the frontline is less than 100km away.
Iraqi Kurds are expecting 1.5 million internally displaced people to flee Mosul as a result of the fighting – in addition to the 3.3 million already here. They’re now hosting nearly a quarter of a million Syrian refugees.
This at a time of a major financial crisis, with public sector employees protesting and refusing to show up for work on a regular basis.
But other than the checkpoints going in and out of cities, one doesn’t see much sign of concern. Except when you speak to people, mainly off the record.
That’s when you will hear why people seem relatively calm: They already feel they have plenty of ISIL operatives – sleeper cells – among them. You could call it paranoia, or justifiable suspicion.
“They’re dressed normal, you know, not like Daesh,” said one man, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL. “And not just Arabs – Kurds too.”
One NGO worker told me: “Yes, they are already here – many”, adding that she and her colleagues figure 70 percent of onecamp for internally displace people is made up of ISIL fighters.
“But half of them are children,” I replied.
“From the teenagers and older – they’re Daesh. My staff does not want to work there when it’s dark. They don’t feel safe.”
Even within the displaced people’s camps, said one source, there is suspicion among residents with some returning to areas liberated from ISIL in a hurry because they grew tired of living under a cloud of distrust.
Another NGO worker wasn’t sure how to deal with working in the newer camps being built so close to the front lines – some as close as 5km away.
The camps were put far away from the cities because of security concerns, Dindar Zebari, deputy minister and head of the Kurdish regional government’s foreign-relations department, told me.
This calm is as steady and solid as distance, checkpoints, and a few thousand Peshmerga make it. The coming weeks will show if all of that will hold.