News / Middle East

Kurdistan Tourist Towns Last Resort for Iraqi Refugees

Reuters
The holiday season has yet to begin, but hotels in the mountain resort towns of Iraq's Kurdistan region are already fully booked.
 
The patrons are not tourists but refugees, fleeing the conflict in the country's arid Sunni Arab heartland for the relative safety of its autonomous north, where Kurds run their own affairs.
 
Shaqlawa may seem an unlikely refuge, but the resort town's population has swollen by almost a half since the start of the year. On the main street of the town, crowded with construction sites, motels and guest houses, the newly opened Fallujah Kebab Restaurant is testimony to its new residents.
 
It is no small irony in a country with a historic enmity between Sunni Arabs and Kurds that residents of Anbar, a place synonymous with Arab nationalism, should now seek sanctuary with their onetime foe.
 
In this mix, there is mistrust and old animosity, but also instances of goodwill, as the refugees bring a touch of Anbar to Kurdistan and the two communities are pressed into an awkward co-existence.
 
"Shaqlawa has become like another Fallujah," said Khalil Yousif, who is paying $400 a month for a dingy apartment in the Holiday Center. "We are all one, we are all brothers; we are all Iraqis."
 
For many here, however, Kurds and Arabs alike, that unity is under question.
 
Anbar's two main cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, have been under siege by the army since militants overran them on Jan. 1, precipitating Iraq's largest internal displacement since the sectarian civil strife of 2006-07.
 
Around 5,200 Anbar families have found refuge in Kurdistan, where many are now staying in hotels and holiday resorts. Many of the refugees hope parliamentary elections in April will somehow allow them to go home, but even that is just a hope.
 
They know they are lucky to enjoy the modest comforts of  scenic mountain resorts while fighting rages in Anbar. Still, many describe themselves as uneasy about the profound differences between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country.
 
"We feel as though it's a different state," said 30-year old Arkan, who left Fallujah with 27 members of his extended family and is now staying at the Happiness Hotel in Dokan, a lakeside holiday town full of restaurants serving freshly fished flame-grilled carp.
 
"It's nice here, but we can't appreciate it because we were forced from our homes, and the language is a problem: we don't know what they're saying".
 
Welcome
 
None of Anbar's refugees had expected to stay so long. They brought little more than the clothes they were wearing when mortars began to fall on their homes as they found themselves caught in the fight between the government and Sunni militant fighters. All of them wanted to return to Anbar as soon as it was safe, and said they were running out of money.
 
Surprisingly, for all the antagonism that exists, some Kurds expressed sympathy towards their plight and felt a sense of duty to assist them.
 
Some refugees in Shaqlawa said hotel owners had reduced room rates for them, and one family described how their landlord bought them an extra generator. Kurdish authorities are also distributing some free gasoline for the refugees.
 
"We too were once homeless, refugees, so we welcome them," said shopkeeper Ghazi, whose small supermarket in Shaqlawa has been doing an unseasonably good trade over the past two months. "As Kurds, we must help them".
 
Scars of history
 
The scars of modern history are too painful to be erased anytime soon.
 
The Kurds were gassed and displaced under late Iraqi Sunni Arab president Saddam Hussein in a bid to stifle aspirations for greater independence. Only after the 1991 Gulf War did the West intervene to protect the Kurds with a no-fly zone that shielded them from Saddam.
 
Fortunes have since changed, and the Kurdistan region is now Iraq's most stable and prosperous. Meanwhile, many in the country's once-dominant Sunni minority complain of ill-treatment under the Shi'ite-led government that came to power after Saddam was vanquished in 2003. Separate development has fueled tensions.
 
A feud over how to share Iraq's resources has intensified to the point that Baghdad cut funding to Kurdistan, retaliating against the region's moves to export oil independently through a new pipeline to Turkey. There is also a cultural drifting apart.
 
Many older Kurds speak at least some Arabic but the generation that grew up after the region gained autonomy generally does not. Today, Arab Iraqis cannot enter Kurdistan without a permit and need a local sponsor if they wish to stay long-term.
 
"The social ties and interconnectedness between Arabs and Kurds that sustained the idea that these are one people and part of one country are long gone," said Fanar Haddad, the author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity.
 
Kurdish suspicions have not eased regarding Iraqi Arabs' intentions.
 
"Frankly, we suffered at their hands," said a 50-year-old taxi driver in Arbil who was imprisoned during Saddam's time for refusing to do military service. "We don't hate the Arabs, but let them have their country, and we'll have ours."
 
Faultline
 
Shihab Ahmed Kufaysh, 22, was less fortunate than some of his fellow Anbaris.
 
Clutching his Iraqi passport, Kufaysh stood angry and dejected outside a checkpoint on the border with Kurdistan after being denied passage across one of the country's deepest ethnic and political fault lines.
 
"They won't let me in," he said, with his belongings lying at his feet and a national identity card in hand. "I am Iraqi: isn't this part of Iraq?"
 
Already vigilant on their internal border with the rest of the country, Kurdish authorities have put Arab Iraqis under further scrutiny after a rare bombing in the regional capital Arbil last year, which was claimed by Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
 
Officials in Kurdistan said the perpetrators of the attack were all Arab.
 
"They think we're all terrorists. This is racism," said Kufaysh before abandoning hope. He turned his back on the border and began his long journey back to Fallujah.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

US Urges Restraint in Hong Kong Protests

Protesters angered by Beijing's decision to only approve candidates that it sanctions for Hong Kong's leadership elections in 2017 More

Archive of Forgotten UCLA Speeches Offers Snapshot of History

Recordings of prominent voices in social change, politics, science and literature from 1960s, early 1970s now available on YouTube More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenyai
X
Gabe Joselow
September 29, 2014 6:20 PM
Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Video

Video Reconstruction? What Reconstruction? Life After War in Gaza

It’s been a month since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire to end 52 days of an air and tank war that left 60,000 homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed and 110,000 homeless. Sharon Behn reports that lack of reconstruction is leading to despair.
Video

Video US, Saudi Arabia and UAE Hit Islamic State's Oil Revenue

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bombed oil facilities operated by Islamic State militants in Syria. It was a truly collaborative effort, with the two Arab countries dropping the majority of the bombs. The 12 refineries targeted were estimated to generate as much as $2 million per day for the terrorist group. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.
Video

Video Russia's Food Sanctions Raise Price Worries, Hopes for Domestic Production

Russia retaliated against Western sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine by halting food imports from the West. The temporary import ban on food from Australia, the European Union, Norway and North America has Russian consumers concerned that they could face a sharp increase in food prices. But in an ironic twist, the restrictions aimed at the Kremlin have made Russia's domestic food producers hopeful this can boost their business. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid