IRBIL/HASSAN SHAM, KURDISTAN REGION, IRAQ —
“If we had less here, we wouldn’t have food or medicine at all,” said Jassim Ahmed, 32, a former Iraqi police officer living in a desert refugee camp about 30 kilometers from Mosul. “For large families, the food it is not even enough now.”
Beginning Friday, Baghdad is shutting down international flights to Iraq's Kurdistan region in retaliation for the Kurdish independence referendum this week that passed with more than 92 percent of the vote. Humanitarian workers say the flight cancellations could have a “dire impact” on the lives of the region’s 1.6 million refugees and displaced people.
Ahmed is living in one of 52 in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that house refugees from Syria, and families internally displaced by the war with Islamic State.
Like many families, Ahmed’s is twice displaced. He once was forced to move to Mosul by IS militants who needed human shields to flee U.S.-led coalition-backed forces. Later he fled bombs and starvation in Mosul. Now, he relies solely on humanitarian organizations to feed his family.
Local aid organizations need international support to operate fully, according to Mousa Ahmed, the president of the Barzani Charity Foundation, which runs 14 of the camps and several other large humanitarian projects in the Kurdistan Region. And most of that support — supplies and funding — comes through the region's international airports.
“Since the battles began, Kurdistan has been a home for people who need a safe place,” he said. “Some of the punishment the Iraqi government is talking about will harm their own people.”
International flights will be canceled as of 6 p.m. local time on Friday, Sept. 29, and will remain so until Dec. 29, according to a statement released Thursday by the Irbil International Airport.
“We would appeal to Baghdad to step back from its proposed actions and consider the consequences for the war against ISIS, the care of so many displaced people and the real impact on the Kurdish people." said Talar Faik, the director general of the Irbil International Airport, in the statement.
Nowhere to go
As the region’s brutally hot summer subsides, many displaced families that can return home already have done so, or currently are trying to go. But many people have no options.
“My cousin went home, and when she opened the door, her house blew up,” said Maryam Hussien, a 43-year-old mother of 10 from Mosul at the Hassan Sham camp, which is managed by the Barzani Charity Organization and Kurdish authorities and funded by local and international aid. “There are bombs everywhere in our neighborhood.”
More than three-quarters of a million people have been displaced since the offensive to retake all of Iraq from IS began nearly a year ago, and many have been forced into that position several times. Aid workers say families continue to flee insecurity and extreme poverty in areas controlled by Iraqi forces, as well as the roughly 500 villages and four cities still controlled by IS.
Other places once held by IS still have no water, electricity or other city services, added Shekha, a 37-year-old mother of eight in a tent across the dusty camp road. Security in former-IS held areas also is spotty, with ‘sleeper cells’ still hiding out in some places, while other areas remain unexplored by bomb experts.
“There is no security, no work and no way to feed my family there,” she said. Shekha fled her home during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and then again this year as Iraqi forces pushed IS out Mosul.
Like other families in the camp, Shekha said they have just enough food, water and electricity to get by. A reduction of aid would push them to the brink of survival, added her husband, Mohammad Ahmed, 38.
“We ran from starvation and now we may starve again,” he said, holding one of his three-month-old twin sons. “How is this right?”