Civilians flee ISIL-held territory in Iraq

As Iraqi and coalition forces prepare for Mosul offensive, more people are seeking shelter in Iraq’s Kurdish region.

People, displaced by violence from Islamic State militants, gather in a building that is used as a temporary shelter in Makhmour
Displaced Iraqis gather in a temporary shelter in Makhmour, a town in Iraq's Kurdish region [Azad Lashkari/Reuters]

Makhmour, Iraq – Omar, 29, slowly hobbles his way through a small courtyard, where dozens of people, including women and children, finish a meal of rice and beans.

All of them recently escaped territory held by fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) by crossing into Iraq’s Kurdish region. They are now living in a temporary transit camp in the town of Makhmour, an hour south of Erbil.

“I fell into a trench; it was three metres deep,” Omar, who did not provide a last name, told Al Jazeera, recalling his night-time escape from Mosul, east across the Tigris river to Makhmour.

Abandoning ISIL is punishable by death, but each week, hundreds of people have been taking the risk to cross into Makhmour, said Peshmerga Brigadier Mehdi Younes. 

“They began coming a year ago, but a month ago, more started arriving,” Younes told Al Jazeera. “[In early March], 300 people arrived in one night – women, children and men.”

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Younes believes this escalation is due to civilians’ growing awareness of the massing of Iraqi forces south of Mosul, in preparation for an offensive to retake the city from ISIL. Late last month, Iraqi security forces working with local tribesmen launched an offensive west of Makhmour, prompting an estimated 2,000 people to flee in less than 24 hours, according to local aid agencies.

Civilians who remain in ISIL-held territory are also facing increasing pressure to join the group, Omar said.

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“On Fridays, they ask people to take up arms and fight. If you don’t obey, they will force you to fight,” said Omar, who was ultimately planning to relocate to Baghdad.

Financial hardships and an increase in coalition air strikes have also prompted more civilians to flee ISIL-held territory in recent days, said Aymenn Tamimi of the Middle East Forum think-tank.

“Another less common and very expensive route some Iraqis take is traversing Syria to get to Azaz area in north Aleppo countryside, and from there, try to get to Turkey,” Tamimi told Al Jazeera. But this route is only available to those who can afford to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers – a difficult prospect for many Iraqis, who are struggling day by day to survive.

Sahar, a married mother of two from a small town near Hawija, lamented that only ISIL’s staunch supporters are able to lead a comfortable life in territory that the group controls. She fled to the Makhmour area early last month.

Sahar, 24, who declined to provide her last name, says her family is desperate for money, and her brother has vowed to take any job that becomes available.

“Even the military, anything to get money,” said her brother, Ahmad, squatting next to Sahar in the barren courtyard of the temporary transit camp. 

Ayad, a 35-year-old from ISIL-held Hawija who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym, relocated to Makhmour in early March after walking for 13 hours with his wife and children to escape their crippling financial hardship.

“I was unemployed for six months,” said Ayad, noting he lost his cafe business after ISIL demanded taxes that he could not afford. “We were hoping that someone would come and rescue us… Some people have started eating shrubs [because there is no money for food].”

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Some residents who can afford it have paid hundreds of dollars to smugglers to be relocated from ISIL-held territory – including Adila, a 39-year-old electrical engineer who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym.

“All of the people [of Mosul] want to leave, but [for many] there is no way,” Adila said, noting she was planning to head next to the Kurdish capital of Erbil to meet other family members.

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Civilians fleeing ISIL-held territory often travel with rusty Kalashnikovs for protection, relinquishing the weapons to the Peshmerga once they reach Kurdish territory, Younes said. Kurdish security forces are tasked with questioning new arrivals to ensure they do not pose a threat.

“The people we don’t have information about we keep for a few days, but others are just here for a few hours, then they’re free to go,” Younes said.

However, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, recently expressed concerns over the situation in the Kurdish-controlled Nazrawa camp for displaced persons in the Kirkuk area, saying civilians were being “forcibly transferred to camps where restrictions on their freedom of movement are imposed in a manner disproportionate to any legitimate concern, including those related to security”.

In other cases, some people who have fled from ISIL-held territory have been banned outright from entering Iraq’s Kurdish region. For months, more than 500 men, women and children who belong to the Juhaish tribe, which is widely viewed as an ISIL affiliate, have been living in no-man’s land northwest of Makhmour: denied entry into Kurdish territory, but unable and unwilling to return to ISIL.

“They have not been allowed across the Peshmerga lines for security concerns,” said Tom Robinson, director of the Rise Foundation, an NGO based in the Kurdish region. “They lived under ISIL and the village that they are from supported ISIL, and put up significant resistance when the recent Sinjar operation took place.” Letting these people through could be viewed as a betrayal of those who suffered at the hands of ISIL and its affiliates, Robinson added.

“The social fabric of much of Ninevah province has been shredded, and the challenges of reconciliation are looming before us,” he said.

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Today, the displaced people from the Juhaish tribe live on a barren patch of land on the eastern side of the Sinjar Mountains, surviving on dirty water and scraps of food donated by sympathetic Peshmerga fighters.

“We have been without bread for over a week … We are completely isolated from the world,” Mahmoud Saleh, one of the stranded people, told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview in early March.


Five in the group have died so far, he said – including a woman and her newborn during childbirth. Skin diseases and malnutrition have also become common, Saleh added.

While Robinson acknowledged that preventing a civilian population access to safety would be in direct conflict with international humanitarian law, “the issue here is that to some key players, this group of stranded tribespeople are not considered civilians due to their alleged affiliation with ISIL”.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council, in charge of security and intelligence in Iraq’s Kurdish region, declined Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.

Saleh, meanwhile, denied allegations that the group of displaced persons was shielding ISIL members.

“They can check,” he said. “If there are people who have been with ISIL, we will kill them ourselves.”

Source: Al Jazeera