Zakho, Iraq – The unfinished brick apartment buildings rise above a muddy square teeming with children and crowded with makeshift stalls selling chocolate bars and second-hand jackets.
Inside, between the concrete pillars, families have strung clothing lines and draped them with sheets to create the illusion of rooms. Each one holds an individual tragedy.
Murad Qassim and his family fled the village of Wardia near Sinjar on August 12 when ISIL surrounded the community. He left behind his father, who was 110.
“I couldn’t carry him and I didn’t have a car to take him so I had to leave him there,” Qassim says. His father was beheaded when ISIL arrived, villagers told him.
Almost three months after ISIL took over large areas of the north of Iraq, tens of thousands of displaced, traumatised Iraqis like Qassim who fled to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, are still living in construction sites.
Underfunded UN and aid agencies, along with a region and country grappling with a financial as well as security crisis, say they are struggling to keep people from freezing and going hungry as winter approaches.
“The expectation is that the international community can cover this to the full extent,” says Barbara Manzi, head of the United Nation’s humanitarian affairs office in Iraq. “We don’t have the capacity. This is big. This is big for all of us.”
Across Iraq, fighting has forced almost two million Iraqis to flee since the beginning of the year. Combined with more than a million displaced by the civil war, the country now has one of the largest populations of displaced citizens in the world.
With winter temperatures dipping below zero, the UN says at least 325,000 people are living without proper shelter.
Almost half are in the Kurdish region where entire towns relocated as ISIL rolled through Nineveh province on the de facto border with the Kurdish region. The Kurdish government has also taken in almost 250,000 Syrian refugees – with hundreds more arriving every day .
The UN says unless it gets more funding, it won’t be able to provide even winter jackets for the more than 225,000 children. “This is a bad situation,” says Khazal Hamda, whose family moved back to their village near Zumar, recaptured last week by Kurdish forces.
“We have no electricity, no heat and there’s mud in the water – we have to boil it to drink it.” Despite that, Hamda said moving back to a village was better than trying to survive in the city, where there are so many displaced people sleeping in schools. The school year has again been delayed.
If you are a civilian and you are trapped in this situation…but you have a chance to escape, where do you go to? You go to where the power is consolidated even if conditions are not good so you can have your life spared.
Across the north of Iraq, destitute, displaced families living on construction sites are evidence that the Kurdish region’s building boom – evidence of a recently flourishing economy – has been put on hold.
In the cash-strapped Kurdish region, the main issue as winter nears is being able to provide fuel for the kerosene heaters most people here rely on to keep warm.
The Kurdish government is embroiled in a dispute with Baghdad over its right to export oil. As a result, Baghdad has cut payments to the Kurdish region.
Across the region, teachers and other civil servants haven’t been paid for months.
“We are planning to build as many refugee camps and refugee centres as possible but our capacity is also limited,” says Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. “We need help.”
The UN and other agencies are negotiating with the Iraqi government to allow it to buy subsidised fuel – at less than one-fifth the cost of market prices – to distribute to needy Iraqis and refugees.
The Iraqi government, though, funding a long and costly war amid a drop in international oil prices, says it is facing its own financial crisis.
More than 150,000 people are believed to have fled the city of Heet after it fell to ISIL last month. The ISIL takeover of Syrian and Jordanian border areas and the limited access given to Arab Iraqis in the Kurdish region has left those families with shrinking areas of safety.
Outside the Kurdish region, ongoing fighting and lack of information from the Iraqi government, make it difficult for the UN and other agencies to even determine the location of the people in need.
As Kurdish Peshmerga take back territory between Mosul and the Kurdish region, ISIL has shifted its attacks to al-Anbar province in the west of Iraq.
Some are trapped by the shifting front lines and out of reach of even Iraqi aid.
“One of the issues that’s particularly worrying is the protection of civilian populations within the conflict,” says Javier Rio Navarro, head of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civilian Protection division in Iraq.
“This restriction of movement of the Sunni population in the central belt is particularly worrisome – both because humanitarian actors have extra challenges accessing the population and the population has extra challenges reaching safer areas where they can be assisted.”
|Iraq refugees tell of life under ISIL|
Aid officials say Sunni Arab families, trying to flee to the relative safety of Baghdad and Karbala, are turned back at checkpoints unless they have a local sponsor.
In fact, there are so few options for Iraqis trapped in volatile areas that some are moving deeper into ISIL-held areas near Mosul and Heet, says Manzi, from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“If you are a civilian and you are trapped in this situation … but you have a chance to escape, where do you go to?” says Manzi.
“You go to where the power is consolidated even if conditions are not good so you can have your life spared.”
Manzi says the ISIL takeover of large parts of Iraq has had a lasting ripple effect.
In Iraq’s main wheat growing region along the Euphrates river basin, much of it under ISIL control, farmers have received no payment for this year’s crop of wheat.
Without subsidised fertiliser and seeds they would normally receive from the central government, they are unlikely to plant a crop for the coming season.
“We are going to see a very poor harvest next year, if at all, so that means the people who are food insecure will be more food insecure – not just this harvest but the one after,” says Manzi.