Iraqis seek refuge in Kurdish north

Iraqis displaced from southern areas find sanctuary in schools and with family as they escape north.

UNHCR says 2,000 refugee families are in the town of Khanaqin [Al Jazeera]

Khanaqin, Iraq – “I was in Syria as a refugee for five years between 2007 and 2012. My son was a policeman and he was killed in 2006. We’re just like something trapped in the mouth of a pair of pliers,” Walid Ismael says. As he speaks, he imitates something being repeatedly crushed between his thumb and forefinger. “I don’t have a metre of land to live on in this country.”

Walid fled the town of Moqtadiya, which lies on the road between Baqubah and Jalawla, when fighting broke out last week. He brought his family to the village of Aliawa, just outside Khanaqin in northeastern Iraq, where along with two other families, they are hosted by local Kurds. As he speaks, the electricity cuts out and the single air conditioner unit stops working. Instantly, the temperature in the room becomes stifling, climbing to match the 40ºc heat outside.

Walid says his family fled when artillery and air strikes started, but like many of the refugees Al Jazeera spoke to, he gave a confused picture of the situation, unable to say where or from whom the bombardment came.

As the United Nations announces that the world’s population of displaced people has reached 51.2 million, levels not seen since World War II, the total number of people displaced from Diyala province is hard to pin down.

However, UNHCR senior protection assistant Sarmand Shawkat, says that there are upwards of 2,000 refugee families in and around the town of Khanaqin alone. Most are from the towns of Jalawla, Saadiya, Moqtadiya and Baqubah, but in the last couple of days families from Baghdad have also started arriving. UNHCR plans to set up 100 tents with facilities spread over four sites, but most families, like Walid’s, are being hosted by local people.

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Next door to the house Walid is staying in is a school which has become home for 95 families. The classrooms surround a sweltering central courtyard in which fabrics hang on lines creating screens and partitioning out some semblance of privacy.

In one of the classrooms a middle aged man in a grey dishdasha speaks about leaving Moqtadiya and bringing his seven children to Aliawa. He declined to be identified or photographed.

“We left Moqtadiya 11 days ago. When the shelling started we didn’t take anything, we just left. We don’t know where the shelling was coming from but Daaish [the Arabic acronym for ISIL] were not in the town before we left.”

When asked if he is Sunni or Shia he waves his hand dismissively and says: “This war is because of sectarianism – I’m Muslim.”

Another man approaches and asks to speak in private. He will not give his name but says that he wants to talk about what happened in Baqubah before he left.

He goes on to claim that Iraqi security forces shelled the city before Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) forces “surrounded the jail and forced the police to hand over the prisoners, and killed them all. The people living around the prison saw the prisoners being taken. The bodies were seen in Baqubah only 500m from the prison. When the ambulances came to collect the bodies, two were still alive. They took them to the hospital and the SWAT forces came to kill them inside the hospital.”

The killing of prisoners in Baqubah has been widely reported but the Iraqi government spokespeople have said they were killed by mortar fire from ISIL.

“There is no ISIL in Baqubah, just SWAT and Maliki’s forces. We live in a Sunni quarter. Security forces come with a loudspeaker on the car and threaten us.” He grabs his young son who has been listening silently and pulls him into his chest. “I can’t take the thought of my son being taken!”

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A few kilometres down the road lies the village of Bahari Taza. Around 20 UNHCR tents lie on one side of the road, white and blue standing out in the consistently flat, drab landscape of Diyala province. On the other side of the road a storage warehouse is full of small camping tents and people. The leader of Bahari Taza, Abu Haider, says that he established the camp on his own initiative in late March when people started arriving from the town of Saadiyah, apparently fleeing persecution by Iraqi security forces.

Abu Haider is short, solid and gruff but has a no-nonsense kindness about him. He says that his village has provided food, water and shelter to people fleeing northwards, and tells a story that illustrates the overwhelmingly confusing nature of the situation that many Iraqi families find themselves in today.

“When families arrive I always ask them why they came. Today I asked a family: ‘Why did you come here? Who is your enemy?’ They said: ‘When we met Daaish they gave us cold water. When we met the Peshmerga, they gave us cold water. When we met the [Iraqi] army, they gave us cold water. We don’t know who is our enemy.”

Follow Jacob Russell on Twitter: @jmrp09 

Source: Al Jazeera