Yazidi commander Qasim Shesho leads Yazidi and Peshmerga soldiers.
(photo credit: VAGER SAADULLAH)
In times of bloodshed, we have difficulty remembering our humanity. We forget to see each other as complex individuals tangled up in twisted narratives.
But it is within remembrance and strength in unity that we can transcend the cycle of violence and revenge.
On January 20, 2016, Amnesty International released a controversial report charging the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with “preventing [Arabs] from returning to their homes,” and claiming that “in some cases [they] have destroyed or permitted the destruction of their homes and property.” Amnesty International claimed that this alleged deliberate destruction and forced displacement constituted a part of the KRG’s attempt to “Kurdize” disputed territories in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala.
The report entails heart wrenching stories of Arab families forced from their homes and the lives they loved.
As we, the Center for Peace and Human Security (CPHS) at The American University in Kurdistan (AUK), visited towns across the Nineveh Governorate throughout 2015, we saw a similar situation: destroyed villages, families broken apart and lives in chaos. But there was one key difference. We also saw brave communities – Kurds, Arabs and Yezidis – aiding each other to survive and rebuild in the wake of Islamic State’s destruction.
In Rabiy’a, we met a Sunni Arab man with his family from Mahmudeeya, a predominately Arab village that suffered hand-to-hand combat between IS and the Peshmerga.
His home, the home of his Kurdish neighbor and their entire village are now in ruins. He lives, for the unforeseen future, in Rabiy’a, among Kurds who have given him and his family shelter as IDPs. When we asked how he has been able to furnish his new home and begin his new life, he smiled, saying, “My Kurdish friend living in Duhok... he furnished my new home, because he knew I had nothing.” The kindness of another gave him a fresh start.
In Zummar, we met a Kurdish couple who told the story of their Sunni Arab friend. IS stormed into the area, closing in on the Peshmerga.
Five Peshmerga came to the woman and her husband’s home seeking shelter. Though she feared IS retribution, she demanded that her family help the Peshmerga escape. Her family followed her lead, and kept the fighters safe from IS. An Arab woman’s boldness saved five Peshmerga lives.
A second Sunni Arab man we interviewed in Rabiy’a gave us a frank answer when we asked him about Arab-Kurdish relations. He said the history between the communities was riddled with difficulties and complexities. He admitted to personal prejudice and even hate against his Kurdish neighbors until IS came.
He stated: “When IS came here, everyone fled away. We knocked on all countries’ doors, and nobody answered us. Just the Peshmerga. At the end of the day, Kurdistan opened its doors to us. President [Masoud] Barzani accepted us. No other countries would [defend us], not with their weapons, not with their governments. [Kurdistan] came to free us from IS.”
The kindness he discovered shocked him, and a region’s hospitality transformed a man’s perception of the other.
When digging among the reports of violence and distrust, hope can be found. Today, the Kurdistan Regional Government hosts two million IDPs and refugees from every ethnic background.
Such generosity is not to be expected from a host community $18 billion in debt.
And just this week in Erbil, Arab IDPs from Anbar began a blood drive at the Erbil Blood Transfusion Center to support Peshmerga fighters. In an interview with Rudaw, Mohammed Mahlawi, the Arab who is spearheading the initiative, stated, “We want to donate our blood for the brave Peshmerga as they protect us from IS.”
Though the conflict still breeds distrust, giving space and attention to these kind acts is transformative.
They can light our path as we can fumble along to find hope.
A Shi’ite Arab from Tal Afar who is currently given shelter in a Kurdish village after losing multiple children to IS states: :First, have a kind heart. We [must] implement ethnicity-free mentality in our children [if we want to survive].
We [must] implant the knowledge that human beings are equal regardless of their ethnicity.”
Nurturing this attitude will ultimately defeat IS and save the region from further conflict. We ask that Amnesty International expand its scope to tell the whole story, which rises above a straightforward story of ethnic conflict.
As President Barzani said in a meeting with community leaders from Zummar and Sinjar on March 15, 2015, “For all who live in KRG should be free in choosing their religion, ethnicity and political affiliation. No one will pay the penalty of another’s crimes; no one has the right to abuse the one who did not commit the crime.”
The author is director of the Center for Peace and Human Security at The American University of Kurdistan.
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