Christmas is approaching, but Christians displaced in northern Iraq are in no mood for festivities. “We won’t celebrate this year,” said 24-year old Randa Khaled, balancing a baby on her hip. “How can we celebrate? We can’t even wash.”
Khaled and her family are among several hundred who have been living in the concrete skeleton of a three-storey shopping centre in Iraq’s Kurdish region since Islamic State (Isis) militants overran their home town of Qaraqosh, east of Mosul.
Of the two million people displaced within Iraq, nearly half have fled to safety in Kurdistan, putting huge pressure on the region’s resources, which has led the United Nations to designate the situation as a level-three emergency, the highest classification of a humanitarian crisis.
Murad Garesh knows the vicious winter in Iraq’s Kurdish north could prove fatal for his five young children, but there is little he can do but wait to be moved into a camp being built nearby.
His and three other Yazidi families – another faith facing persecution by militant Islamists – with more than 20 children between them, have settled on a hill outside the city of Dohuk, near the Turkish border, after fleeing the Isis onslaught in August.
“We have no electricity or running water, and we have not washed in days, but at least we are safe from Da’aesh,” said 35-year-old Murad, using a derogatory term for Isis while, a few metres away, children gather around a fire to keep warm.
Garesh is one of thousands of minority Yazidis who fled their homes in northwestern Iraq after Isis attacked them in August, killing or capturing hundreds and hounding the rest up a mountain in the scorching heat of summer.
“The current and most pressing challenge is the onset of winter. We need to provide proper shelters, heating, winter clothing and blankets. We’re still receiving people from Syria and places like Anbar. The crisis isn’t even stabilising,” said Bayan Rahman, high representative to the UK for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG).
The mountainous Dohuk province is hosting more than 50% of all the displaced in Kurdistan, on top of about 100,000 refugees from Syria, a total equal to almost half the province’s own population. Streets are clogged with traffic, living costs have risen and there is not enough water or electricity for everyone.
Before the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were moved to new camps on 1 December, most were being housed in schools across the province, which meant local students missed out on two months of this year’s education.
Ismail Mohammad Ahmed, assistant to the governor of Duhok for IDP affairs, said the province had gone from being the least populous in Iraq to the fourth most crowded in the space of six months. “We desperately need fuel, clothing, foodstuffs and other services for the IDPs.”
Ahmed said seven IDP camps had already been built and 13 others are under construction, but emphasised that more needed to be done to save the IDPs from the winter. Kurds know just how deadly winter can be.
During an uprising against the Baghdad government in 1991, the Iraqi army attacked Kurdish areas to quell the revolt, including Dohuk city, sending around 2 million people fleeing to the Turkish and Iranian border areas.
With no adequate help from the international community, thousands of civilians, mainly children, perished from the cold. “When it rains we have no life in this tent – everything becomes damp,” said Hayat Semo, a 21-year-old mother of two children in Khanke camp, which houses more than 18,000 Yazidis from Sinjar.
“The situation for the children is worse. When they get up in the morning, their tiny bodies are so stiff from the cold they can’t move. We have no proper clothing for them.” Rain has turned the ground to mud, and the singed remains of a burnt-out tent are testament to the dangers of the overcrowded camp.
Despite the Kurdish authorities’ best efforts to provide for the displaced, the region has been suffering since Baghdad cut funding early this year, bringing an oil-fuelled economic boom to an abrupt halt. That has left hundreds of would-be apartment complexes, office blocks and supermarkets unfinished – now used as shelter by the displaced.
While many of the IDPs are all but penniless and cannot afford accommodation in the city, a tiny minority are spending their savings on renting flats because they say they cannot live in the camps. Salam Juma, a science teacher from eastern Mosul, is paying $600 a month to stay in a small flat. “My wife has sold her gold in order to pay the rent, but we are running out of money and I don’t know what to do,” said the father of five.
“Only God and Obama know when we will be able to return to our homes. I want the Americans to continue bombing Isis, but send us foodstuffs too.”
Syrian refugees who have been in Iraqi Kurdistan since the civil war broke out in 2011 appear to be better established, working in the bazaar polishing shoes, selling cigarettes and telephone cards and working across the Kurdish region in cafes and restaurants. Aid agencies are also struggling to meet the needs of the displaced.
“Winter is the devil right now,” said the UNHCR’s external relations officer, Jessica Hyba. “It’s a time issue; we are all working around the clock to make sure we reach everyone. This is a protracted situation. There’s really no end in sight.”On Monday 8 December the KRG will launch the Kurdistan Emergency Appeal at the House of Commons in London to raise money and awareness about the plight of IDPs and refugees.
“We need the international community to step up its funding for the UN and to take proper responsibility for its fellow human beings, who have become homeless, traumatised paupers because of the Islamic State.The humanitarian response has to be a part of the international community’s overall approach to the crisis created by Isis,” said Bayan Rahman.
by Fazel Hawramy