Khabat refugee camp near Erbil. Photo by Judit Neurink
KHABAT, Kurdistan Region - “They have lists of police, military and politicians. If you get caught at a checkpoint and you are on it, they will kill you.”
Khaled, who recently fled from Mosul to the Kurdistan Region, is sure of this. Computer records of officials have ended up in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the extremist Islamist group that stormed Mosul, and are being used to get rid of possible enemies.
Khaled himself was threatened by masked men – the reason he left his hometown, with wife and four children. “We will never go back,” vowed his wife, Mariam.
Stories about what is happening in Mosul reach the outside world through the cell phones of those who left. When Khaled’s rand, he was told about an acquaintance who has been picked up. “No, he was not killed,” he said, visibly relieved.
When Mosul was falling into the hands of the ISIS, as many as a half million inhabitants left the city. Most came to the Kurdistan Region, where they went to stay with friends or family. For those who have no roof over their heads, nor money to rent a hotel room or apartment, the Kurdish authorities are setting up four camps, all just outside the official borders of the region.
That is how the house of Surya in Bartilla, some 30 kilometers from Mosul, became the refuge for members of her family from Mosul. She herself left the city years ago, to flee the Islamic groups that were targeting minorities. Surya is a politician and member of the Shabak minority, a small group of mostly Shiites that has moved out of Mosul and into the Nineveh Plains over the past years.
She knows the story about the records, she says. “My whole family is on it because of our political activities.” Already people have been killed. Acquaintances were awakened at night and the men of the house taken away. When in another case the callers did not find the policeman they were seeking at home, they killed his sons, so Surya has heard.
Her ties with Mosul are tight, and for that reason she went to the city only yesterday to pick up the food coupons the family needs to stay alive. Mosul was quiet, she found, with some burned vehicles and checkpoints on the way in, and new checkpoints with the black ISIS flags. “They were giving away petrol for free, and removing the high blast walls that were put up for security.”
As far as she has heard, former officers of Saddam’s army are working together with radical Muslim groups. As soon as the city had fallen to ISIS, the officers formed a popular committee to guard the city. “In the past they planted the roadside bombs against the Americans and other bomb attacks, now they are in charge,” she sighs.
Earlier reports from well informed sources in Mosul mentioned nine generals from Saddam’s army who arrived with the fighters and took control of the governor’s building. Three of Saddam’s generals, who were employed in the new Iraqi army, switched sides.
Stories of atrocities and revenge have scared civilians into fleeing, as is clear in the new camp on the highway to Erbil. Next to this there are three other camps in the area of Duhok, where most of the Mosul arrivals went.
“I have to protect my daughters against ISIS,” said Huda, who fled her village near Mosul with her husband and teenage daughters.
They have found refuge in one of the big blue tents erected on a dusty plot next to the checkpoint of Khabat. Volunteers bring them some hot lunch on plastic plates; bottles of water and foodstuff are put in a corner.
According to Mayor Rzgar Mustafa from nearby Khabat, the camp is a big improvement to the situation of the days before, when thousands were kept waiting in the heat at the checkpoint. Locals supplied them with water and food. And although now the aid is organized and professional organizations are involved, the local community still wants to help, he said, pointing to stacks of water bottles waiting in a tent for distribution.
Mohammed, who came from the same village as Huda, said that everybody had left and the village is empty now. It is situated just outside one of Mosul’s checkpoints, and was the target last week of two car bombs. Mohammed left with his wife and three children and camped in his truck, until they heard about the new camp.
Most people in the camp appear to be from the villages. They fear ISIS will extend its power to the outskirts. Camp coordinator Barzan does not care where they are from, he does not even ask them. “We do not want to discriminate against anyone, as that happens too much where they came from. For me they all came from Mosul.”