Ahmed* watched his brother disappear in the smoke. “The bomb hit and I couldn't even see him to save him. I haven't seen him since. Then we had to quickly run away”. As the Iraqi militias faced the ISIS invaders, Ahmed fled with his wife, three small children, and 8 members of his extended family. He left his farm with its fertile fields, vineyards and orchards to live in an tent camp just outside Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan. He says, “We have not slept one night in a house since we left Salahadeen 18 months ago. It is so cold here. I had never seen snow before.”
The world media has given news about ISIS and the Syrian refugees that fled to nearby countries. They have also told of Ezidis(Yazidis) and Christians of Iraq who left everything behind to live as internally displaced persons (IDP) in another region of Iraq. However, there is another group whose story has rarely been told- the Sunni Iraqi Arabs of the province of Salahadeen.
Allied forces hit this region hard during the latest Iraq War. Then in the summer of 2014, ISIS invaded these impoverished communities. As they are Sunni Muslim, ISIS overlooked them, as long as they obeyed the religious laws decreed by the militants. However, in central Iraq the Shia militia have the goal of pushing ISIS out of the region. They reclaimed the land, leaving the families living there in a precarious position. The militia viewed them as collaborators or even as part of ISIS. They were forced to flee for their lives using underground routes to reach the IDP camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Ahmed knows that there is nothing to return to in his former home. “I used to be a farmer”, he says sadly. Soon after their escape his neighbor sent photos of the house burning and of the militia chopping down all of his fruit trees. The text on the phone read, “You're all ISIS and Saddamis, We will do the same to you that Saddam did to us for 30 years”. This message references the cruelty that Saddam Hussein laid on the Shia people.
The IDP camp in Sulaimani is not perfect. Ahmed still has anxiety that he might be falsely accused of being an ISIS member and that Kurdish security forces will imprison him or send him back to the danger. Their new home in the camp is small and the neighbours are very close and noisy. When the temperature is cold in winter they cannot use kerosene heaters in the night for fear of fire. Then in the summer the unbearable heat beats down on the treeless camp. However, the canvas with the large UNHCR letters painted on the side represents security to Ahmed and his family. “We had a house with brick walls and a roof but there was violence and pain. We ran away in fear for our lives. Now I see our tent is a place of beauty. We are safe.”
A drawing by a boy from Salahadeen depicting life in his home on the farm and life in the camp.