Makhmour, Iraq – Along the parched, dusty roads in and around the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour, tensions seethe between Arabs and Kurds, who once lived as neighbours here.
Nearly a year has passed since Kurdish Peshmerga forces wrestled the town back from fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who claimed Makhmour for a few short days last August.
But when residents who had fled the fighting began returning home, it was to a different town.
Kurdish officials reportedly refused re-entry to Arab residents, while a number of Arab homes were allegedly torched and looted by Kurdish neighbours who suspected them of supporting ISIL.
Still today, a year after ISIL’s lighting advances through Iraq and amid a grinding conflict that threatens to drag on indefinitely, some Kurdish residents maintain that their Arab neighbours are no longer welcome.
“I don’t want to see any Arabs. It’s better to leave them in Erbil,” local business owner Tahir Ahmed told Al Jazeera on one of the crumbling streets in downtown Makhmour. “When they come to this place, the tensions start.”
Of the 27,000 people who lived in the town of Makhmour before the ISIL invasion, about 17,000 returned following its liberation last August, Mayor Ibrahim Shekhalla told Al Jazeera. But of the town’s approximately 1,000 Arab residents, he does not believe any have returned home to live, although some still come to work in Makhmour, located between ISIL-held Mosul and Peshmerga-controlled Kirkuk. There is a front line just 12km from Makhmour’s city hall.
Shekhalla does not accept the premise that Arabs have been effectively pushed out of the town.
We are all worried. We don't feel very safe. We've always had a perfect relationship with the Kurds. I'm not worried about what people say; I’m worried about attacks from mortars, about ISIL coming back… I really want to go back home, but I’m waiting until it’s safe.
“It’s not exactly like that,” he told Al Jazeera from inside his city hall office, which was briefly occupied by ISIL during the group’s takeover. “We have some areas that we cannot accept any kind of civilians [because] they are front-line areas… We don’t have Arabs or Kurds there.” Once these areas are stabilised, he added, “all are welcome to come back to their homes”.
While he acknowledged that some Kurdish residents may view their Arab neighbours as a threat, Shekhalla added: “It’s normal in this area to find [such] tensions … and during the war it increases.”
Indeed, the tensions in Makhmour intensified after ISIL invaded and half of the town’s Arab residents chose to stay rather than flee, Ahmed said. This was taken as a sign that they were siding with ISIL over their own neighbours.
“[In the past] they showed cooperation and backed us, but when the conflict started, they turned their backs on us,” local police officer Abdullah Karim told Al Jazeera, noting some Arab families who supported ISIL attacked Kurdish security forces as they attempted to wrestle back control of Makhmour. “We got attacked by ISIL at the front-lines and by [our Arab neighbours] from the back.”
At the same time, some of Makhmour’s former Arab residents say the relationship between Arabs and Kurds in the area has long been solid, while the real threat to both comes from ISIL.
Mohammad Soltan, a 28-year-old construction worker who fled Makhmour during the ISIL invasion and now lives in nearby Debaga, points out that it is a mistake to paint all Arabs with the same brush.
“I am sad and angry when this happens,” Soltan told Al Jazeera, adding that while there may have been some Arab families in Makhmour who supported ISIL, others remained behind after the group’s invasion because they had no viable exit strategy, or because they were threatened with death.
“We are all worried. We don’t feel very safe,” he said. “We’ve always had a perfect relationship with the Kurds. I’m not worried about what people say; I’m worried about attacks from mortars, about ISIL coming back… I really want to go back home, but I’m waiting until it’s safe.”
Arsalan Abdullah, a 33-year-old Kurd who works in transportation in Debaga, agreed with Soltan, noting: “People are angry, but you cannot charge all Arabs [with the same offence]. Some did bad things, but there are many different cases.”
Meanwhile, at a small camp for displaced Iraqis in Debaga, dozens of other Arab families have sought shelter after being pushed out of battle-torn villages surrounding Makhmour.
“Our town has been taken by the Peshmerga. They are not allowing us to go back to our village because it’s on the front-lines,” businessman Mahmoud Ibrahim, a 45-year-old resident of Jar Allah village, told Al Jazeera.
Mohammed Aziz, a former Iraqi army officer who is also living at the Debaga camp, said Kurdish leaders have promised them they will be able to return home once the areas are deemed safe again. “They have given us their word, [so] I don’t care what other people say,” Aziz noted.
Conditions inside the camp are harsh, with electricity and water shortages and a general sense that they have been forgotten in the ongoing conflict, residents say.
Many crouch outside in the shade of their tents, unable to find respite from the suffocating summer heat. They remain determined to return home.
“We have belonged to the Makhmour [region] and our villages for hundreds of years,” camp resident Younis Hamad told Al Jazeera. “No one, and no power, can move us.”
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