Reflections on Erbil

With "sandals on the ground" in the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the "Magazine" visits the historic Old City and meets refugees fleeing Islamic State, hearing their stories.

Internally displaced people walk in the Harsham Refugee camp, in Erbil. (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Internally displaced people walk in the Harsham Refugee camp, in Erbil.
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
I had been asleep for nearly 13 hours when I saw the text from my mom.
“I need to talk to you ASAP.”
I knew what it was about; I had gone to a war-torn country without telling her.
Being at the front with Peshmerga forces holding the line against Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan didn’t put my stomach into such knots as seeing that text from my mother.
Why did I go? she asked. Think of all the people I could hurt if something happened, she pleaded.
I knew the risks. The first night in Erbil, the regional capital, was restless. I had a nightmare that Islamic State stormed the hotel and took me captive after my fixer turned me in for a $150,000 prize for my head. But when I woke up and went down for breakfast, the Arab staff – mostly refugees from Mosul, Ramadi, or some other city under the clutches of Islamic State – were pleasant and accommodating.
Kurdistan was curious. Its reputation is immensely positive. I joked that it’s the Israel of the Arab states, a sea of calm surrounded by tumultuous storms.
But Kurds are quick to remind you that they are not Arabs, and many don’t like them. Their story is similar to the Jewish story: a history of conflict and oppression; having to hide their language and culture for fear of death; the necessity to defend their own people after silence from the international community in the face of extermination; an industrious character; the desire and strength to build a democratic society; in charge of their own future and taking responsibility for their own interests.
I could get behind these kind of ideas.
Erbil is a desert city. Its main attraction is the Old City, which dates back nearly 6,000 years, competing for “longest continually inhabited city” next to Jericho. Today, the area is being renovated to preserve its historic character and expand for residences. The goal is to make it a site for tourism and community.
The market below the Old City walls is bustling with tea stands, shops and restaurants. It’s not a cosmopolitan utopia; the chairs and tables of the tea stands are plastic, the shops sell bootleg electronics or chintzy souvenirs, the restaurants offer either chicken or meat in pita. Tap water isn’t safe to drink, and in 38º heat people buy bottle after bottle after bottle of water, kept cold by meter-long blocks of ice that melt too quickly during the day.
The city is growing, but it’s rather empty. Sidewalks and roads are unfinished, houses are crumbling while skyscrapers are being built.
The Kurds fought for and established the semi-autonomous region in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the help of a US-implemented no-fly zone, keeping Saddam Hussein from committing acts of genocide against them as he had done previously. With the liberation of Iraq – as the Kurds call the US invasion in 2003 – a new, democratic government was set up, giving the Kurds semi-autonomy to govern their own affairs. They established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Kurdish society is traditional. Alcohol is usually found only in the Christian areas, and men and women usually don’t congregate together.
In the main outdoor bazaar, a ring of shops and tea stands surrounds a covered casbah. Inside, hijab-covered women with children in tow, or even more Western-thinking women with their hair free, wander in and out of shops.
The men sit outside; they come and go, sit and drink tea all day. You will never find a woman sitting among the men.
Despite this, I never felt harassed or made to be an object. Traveling with two men was probably more secure, but more often than not I would wander away or stray behind. At a chicken-sandwich shop filled with men, the cashier took my order nonplussed.
I did receive curious stares – tourists, and especially white ones, are in short supply – but only once or twice were there any catcalls, mostly from immature teenagers.
THE KURDS pride themselves on the country’s safety. During the Iraq war from 2003 to 2013, not a single US soldier was killed or wounded in the Kurdish region.
The events most devastating to their security were in the advance by Islamic State during the summer of 2014. Islamic State overtook the Sinjar Mountains and captured the city of Mosul in the northeast of Iraq, before heading south to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. In a matter of days the Peshmerga – the Iraqi-Kurdish militia – pushed the Islamic State forces back, reclaiming the surrounding area of Mosul (pausing 30 km. from the city), creating a barrier around Kirkuk, and after intense fighting managed to take back the Sinjar Mountains.
Today, Kurds curse the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Army for their incompetence in repelling Islamic State and their delay in distributing funds to the regional government. Kurdistan has oil, but to benefit from the sales, officially they have to go through the Iraqi government. Seventeen percent of the proceeds of oil sales are supposed to be returned to the KRG. This is a multibillion- dollar industry, but the Kurds maintain they’ve only seen a few hundred million.
International military support must also go through Baghdad. While millions of dollars of advanced weaponry, technology and supplies go to the Iraqi Army, the Kurds maintain they receive nothing – they may be receiving some supplies directly, but the official line of supply has to go through Baghdad. The Kurds buy their supplies themselves; or when they overtake an Islamic State position, they take its weapons and vehicles.
At this point, Islamic State is one of the most well-equipped armies. When it took over Mosul and Ramadi, the Iraqi Army fled – and left behind all of its US supplies. Islamic State took these, and then the Kurds take from them. It’s a sick, black joke, but it’s true.
SINJAR WAS one of the most devastating losses, as Islamic State surrounded the minority Yazidi population that lives in those mountains. Thousands were killed, survivors suffered from lack of supplies, water and food, and others were taken captive by the devils of the Islamic State.
My colleague and I took a short side trip to the Lalish Yazidi Temple, between the cities of Dohuk and Erbil.
There we found Luqman Mahmud, an economics teacher, journalist and de facto tour guide of the temple. He receives barefoot visitors (in accordance with the holiness of the area) wishing to see the temple. He speaks perfect English.
The sun sets on another blistering hot day in Iraq, finally providing some respite. Mahmud leads us through the temple, pointing out the burn marks from ceremonial candles, the flowers representing the spirit of the earth.
“Have you heard of the Yazidis before?” It’s clear what he means when he says “before” – before Islamic State.
“In 600 years, there have been 74 genocides of our people. There is a village, Kocho, with 184 families. [Islamic State] took all the girls – 300 girls, a city full of the most beautiful girls – and killed all the boys aged 12 to 18.”
In August 2014, reports surfaced that Islamic State had gone into the town of Kocho, about 24 kilometers south of the Sinjar Mountains, executed around 80 men and taken hundreds of women and girls prisoner.
My eyes begin to well up with tears as he speaks. It’s not a statistic on a page anymore. In front of me are a mother and her daughters, sitting and talking next to a holy well; it could have been them. Children run and play barefoot over the sacred stones; it could have been them, too. These are Mahmud’s people, from a place not so far from here, tortured and killed simply because of who they are. The temple has taken in some of these refugees.
The majority of Kurds are Sunnis, but they are tolerant. Assyrians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Christians make up the minority population in this northern part of Iraq.
THE HARSHAM refugee camp, a 15-minute drive from the center of Erbil, is at the end of a road lined with well-todo middle-class, two-story houses on one side, and construction of high-rise apartment buildings on the other.
At camp’s entrance, guards lazily wait out the early morning heat, checking us in to meet with one of the camp’s directors.
Refugees – men, women and children – are sporadically seen on the dirt-packed roads between their shanty tents. Signs from various NGOs display the sanitary way to defecate and promote immunization shots for children.
A bakery is working around the clock churning out fresh flat bread, children mill in and out of a clean and colorful playground, and two women exit a trailer, where skills training is given.
But this doesn’t diminish the sad and depressing reality of families, mostly from the Mosul area, fleeing Islamic State, now left with makeshift tents, a sewerage system run through dirt canals, and children who don’t smile.
Zena, 43, is a mother of nine and is one of the “luckier” families to be given two trailers. One has mattresses stacked to the ceiling, taken down at night for sleeping; the other is being cleaned by her son, and is usually used for food preparation and meals.
They’ve fashioned a chicken coop out of spare wood, but the chickens are nowhere to be seen. Zena, barefoot and wearing a cheetah-patterned hijab, relates the worst of her troubles, how her 10-year-old son Muhammad is suffering from a chronic head injury, wounded in a blast while they were still living in Bartala.
Before the war came to them, Zena was a homemaker and her husband was a truck driver. Now, he is a day laborer in Erbil and the family has little to no hope of making enough money to move out of the refugee camp. Yet they believe they’ll return home in a year’s time.
Zena desperately wants to get Muhammad out of the country so that he can receive medical care in Europe. She said his five surgeries have left them completely broke, and now she relies on loans from her neighbors or the kindness of strangers.
Zack Huff is one such stranger. A native of Idaho who volunteered for the IDF, he’s been spending the last few weeks in Erbil trying to help out in any way he can. The last time Muhammad had to be taken to the hospital, Huff brought him there and paid for the cab fare. When Zena sees him, her face lights up and they grasp hands warmly.
Harsham is the smallest refugee camp in Kurdistan. It houses a little over 1,400 people, with the majority from Mosul and Sinjar.
Mustafa is the camp manager and somewhat of a refugee himself. He, his wife, and their one-year-old child left their home in Dalal after sectarian fighting broke out between Sunnis and Shi’ites. His mother and father are still there; with stable jobs, they didn’t want to leave.
Mustafa, a Sunni, began work at the camp right away. He says of course always the biggest challenge is money.
The kids now are in informal schooling, but with the help of UNICEF, full-time school will begin shortly. Yet brownouts and cramped living quarters are never healthy for growing children.
The Kurds have taken in over a million refugees fleeing Islamic State. Some refugees take shelter in unfinished buildings, and the more well-off – some not even claiming refugee status – rent rooms for months at a time in hotels.
ON MY last night in Erbil, I met Meethak, a 17-year-old refugee from Ramadi. His spirit and positivity are infectious.
He learned English by listening to American pop songs.
“How can I listen to Katy Perry and not know what she is saying?” he asked me incredulously, with a beaming smile of straight white teeth.
He is one of 14 children; his father took three wives. He is more well-off than most; his mom has four children including him, and they live in their own house in Erbil. All of his family is here except for one sister, who he is trying to get out of Ramadi with her oneyear- old son.
Since landing in Erbil he’s been finishing school and acting as a translator and fixer for foreign journalists. His dream is to go to medical school.
A couple of years ago he started to watch Islamic State videos online and was getting drawn into their ideas, getting brainwashed.
“When you’re young and alone and watching videos in your room, they show you your people being killed and playing sad music, and say it is the work of the West. It makes you want to take revenge.”
But he says he had a switch, and doesn’t want to join Islamic State. He loves Iraq, his country, and wants to do everything possible to take it back from the extremists.