Ramadi refugee: 'They were killing women and children'
Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi. AP file photo
KALAR, Kurdistan Region – Mohamed Ibrahim anxiously clutches his family's green laminated Iraqi identification cards at the Sheikh Langar checkpoint.
“I am so scared of Daesh,” said grey-haired father of four, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), which overran his village on the outskirts of Ramadi last week.
“They were killing woman and children.”
Now Ibrahim, his family, and about 30 other Iraqis are waiting at the checkpoint, hoping to enter the Kurdistan region.
Ramadi, the largest city and capital of Anbar province, fell to ISIS on Sunday after the Iraqi armed forces abandoned the city in scenes reminiscent of last summer when Mosul was abandoned ahead of a blitzkrieg ISIS advance.
Civilians were reported to have been killed in the streets of Ramadi and over 4,000 families are believed to have fled the city in recent days.
Yet, Ramadi was already largely a ghost town.
In April, over 100,000 residents fled the city with over 6,000 seeking refuge in Sulaimani province, according to the United Nation's International Office of Migration.
At checkpoints into the Kurdistan region security forces struggle to balance the need for security with the obligation to provide shelter to displaced Iraqis. It’s a task made more difficult as the region reaches infrastructure overload and aid agencies warn of dire funding shortages.
At the Saleh Ara checkpoint between between Kalar and Khanaqin, top officer Hussein Raheem Marouf estimated a dozen families of internally displaced people, or IDPS, were arriving each day.
Marouf said women, children and the elderly are let through as a matter of course, but added that fighting-age males were subjected to background checks to ensure no ISIS sympathizers were allowed to infiltrate.
“We have to be 100 percent before we let them in,” he said. “But, of course, it's written in the Asaish [Kurdish security services] rule list that we should let through pregnant women, the sick and the injured without delay.”
At the Sheikh Langar checkpoint, Ibrahim and his family have had a different experience.
“We've been waiting for six days sleeping in the street here, but so far we haven't got permission to enter Kurdistan,” he said, lowering his voice as the checkpoint commander approached.
The commander declined to give his name but was quick to offer an explanation for the delay.
“We respect them. We give the food. We deal with them like humans,” he said. “But we've got to investigate before we let them through.”
He said IDPs are interviewed and those who the Asaish trust, or those who have someone in the Kurdistan region to vouch for them, are allowed to enter. Most are permitted to travel to Camp Arbat in Sulaimani province, one of dozens of refugee camps in the region.
At present, over a million displaced Iraqis have sought shelter in the Kurdistan region, nearly 40 percent of the total number across Iraq.
Officials in Erbil have warned that the cost of providing services to the refugees, combined with the war against ISIS and the ongoing budget dispute with the federal government in Baghdad, could bankrupt the region.
“It's a huge burden,” said Zagros Fattah, of the Kurdistan Ministry of Planning. “Even a developed country like the US wouldn't be able to deal with that number of people.”
Compared to the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan remains an area of relative security and continues to attract Iraqis seeking to escape violence.
“We must be allowed to enter Kurdistan,” Ibrahim said. “We can't live near Ramadi anymore, it's just too dangerous.”