Six-year-old Helen, wearing her best blue dress and stockings and a flower in her hair for the journey to her new unknown home, glances at her mother before reaching out gingerly to touch the barrel of the Kalashnikov slung across the shoulder of a Kurdish militiaman as he takes the names of the families in line.
Helen and her mother and two baby sisters, Syrian Kurds from the town of Hassakeh, are among hundreds of people who fill a disused barn now operating as a quasi-legal refugee office, controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia to register people crossing to Iraqi Kurdistan. “The [rebel] Free Syrian Army and the [Syrian] regime were fighting every night. We couldn’t sleep,” her mother explains.
They are heading to Iraqi Kurdistan, where Helen’s father is seeking work. But the future is uncertain. The crowd streamed in from the early morning Tuesday. The refugees make their way across in taxis, pickup trucks and on foot, carrying plastic bags and suitcases crammed with their life’s possessions. By midday, the gathering had swelled to well over 500.
Then, the bad news arrived. “Maliki’s soldiers have closed the borders,” explains a YPG fighter, referring to the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “Everyone just take a seat. We are working on it.” The YPG, the civilian militia affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is managing this makeshift crossing.
There is no telling how long the wait will be, and so, with cold rain setting in, the barn quickly turns into an interim refugee camp. What began as an orderly line starts to fray as the wait continues and the realization sets in that the barn may be home for days, if not weeks.
As more bad news arrives from PYD officials, the crowd begins to shout and surge forward. But there is no movement. As desperation grows, dignity recedes. Families who are leaving behind their homes, jobs, school, television and family meals, look increasingly bedraggled. Mothers hand out packed rations of biscuits and juice to restless children.
Another woman carefully and surreptitiously unfurls a narrow sleeve of Syrian pounds from inside her abaya, to count her savings, thumbing through the notes three times. By 3 p.m., the PYD official says there is no use – the Iraqi troops will not relent. “Go home and try again tomorrow,” he tells the crowd, but many have nowhere to go home to.
Ethnic and religious differences, which have increasingly come to the fore and worked to define Syria’s war as a sectarian conflict, dissipate here. Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Iraqis, with opposing political views and from across the country, sit side by side, sharing tea and tales.
Fresh from the city of Malikieh, where PYD forces took over control from Syrian government troops a day earlier, Youssef says he left after losing his job at a Turkish engineering company. He hopes to find work in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Hassan, a Kurd, has just arrived from the town of Ras al-Ain on Syria’s border with Turkey, and is sitting alongside a seasoned PYD fighter from Qamishli.
Ras al-Ain has been overrun by FSA fighters in recent days, with Syrian warplanes striking the area, as Kurdish fighters seek to maintain a presence. The smugglers’ route along Syria’s northeastern frontier with Iraq has been inundated with refugees every day. On Monday alone, one border official tells The Daily Star, 1,000 people registered to cross.
Only a few hundred were allowed through. Iraqi troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga co-manage the checkpoints around the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, close to the disputed Iraqi city of Mosul. But, nervous that a spillover of the Syrian crisis may rock the already tense situation has meant that government troops have increased their presence along the border, extending northward.
Tense relations between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous resource rich Kurdistan don’t help matters. Neither does the less than amicable relationship between the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria’s PYD, affiliated with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long war with Turkey along the northern border.
The refugees are less than welcome by any side. When word does finally come through that a change of guard at the crossing has meant several trucks full of people can pass, families clamor for a place on the back of two cattle carriers for the five-kilometer ride to the border.
Once there, a border official tells The Daily Star the order to stop the passage “came from Baghdad.” Laden with bags, they walk another three kilometers across the rocky Girecep mountain plains to the Iraqi border post near the village of Shilokiyeh.
It is difficult terrain, littered with land mines and marked ominously with red painted wooden posts. Carrying tired children and suitcases, they form a dark human trail of suffering across the otherwise picturesque dusk landscape.
Fatima, a mother of five making the journey alone while her husband waits behind in Hassakeh told The Daily Star she hoped to make it to one of the overcrowded refugee camps in Dormiz, near Dohuk. ‘I don’t care where I go, anywhere is better than where we came from,” she says.
But in an ominous sign, a Syrian man greeting the trail waves and offers a word of advice to the newcomers: “Go back, I tell you, it’s better in Syria.”