Militant violence creates homogeneous enclaves for Iraq’s sects

08/19/2014 1:35 PM

08/20/2014 5:21 PM

Far behind the front lines, refugees displaced by Islamic extremists in Iraq do not see a way for themselves to go home anytime soon.

The Islamic State “burned our houses and took whatever we had left,” said Falah Tahir, an Iraqi Turkman who managed a dangerous drive to Baghdad three weeks ago from Iraq’s northern provinces after fleeing fighting between militants and Kurdish forces in June.

Iraqi officials apparently agree that the hundreds of thousands of residents displaced by the violence of Islamic State militants will remain homeless for months or even years. They’re creating infrastructure to care for religious and ethnic minorities pushed out of their houses by this year’s fighting.

So far, most of the refugees are living in schools, mosques, clinics and compounds managed by political parties. The city of Baghdad, meanwhile, is building semi-permanent mobile home communities to give the displaced families a better place to stay, said Nabil Naif, the Baghdad operations officer for the International Red Crescent. The first 100 homes opened this month.

Just as they did during the bloody sectarian fighting during the American occupation, displaced Iraqis who used to live in diverse communities are fleeing to cities and neighborhoods dominated by their own religious sects.

Shiite Muslims driven out of Mosul by Sunni extremists, for instance, flocked to Baghdad and cities deeper in Iraq’s Shiite southern provinces. Sunnis trying to avoid battles between militants and the government have retreated far into Anbar province.

Christians are coalescing in northern Iraq, with some reaching for safety in Baghdad. And tens of thousands of Yazidis displaced from the city of Sinjar remain far from home in refugee camps in Iraq’s Kurdish north.

That sorting of Iraq’s people consolidates the country’s Kurds in the north, its Sunnis in the west and center, and its Shiites in the south – cementing the sectarian divisions that have fractured Iraq for the past decade.

“Some people were planning for the fragmentation of Iraq,” said Yonadam Kanna, an Assyrian Christian member of Iraq’s Parliament. “We have to resist them and stand together.”

All together, the United Nations estimates that this year’s fighting has driven some 1.5 million people from their homes.

Kamal Amin, spokesman for Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry, called the Islamic State’s expulsion of Shiites and minorities “an organized effort of sectarian cleansing and genocide.”

“We wish (the refugees) did not leave their homes. Leaving accomplishes the goals of the terrorist groups, which is making this demographic change,” he said.

The displacement campaign is straining resources around the country. In Baghdad, officials are preparing to delay the start of school this year because so many campuses are being used to house refugees.

“I will not let a student or pupil enter the school until the problem of these people has been solved,” said Hamid Azziz al Haffaji, the principal of an elementary school in Baghdad’s Saidia neighborhood.

His school houses about 190 people, a mix of Shiites and Christians run out of Mosul two months ago. Last week, residents from the neighborhood dropped by to bring donations while a cordon of Iraqi police guarded the camp.

At another camp, Tahir and dozens of relatives from a mostly Shiite Turkmen village in between Tal Afar and Sinjar have taken shelter in a medical clinic. They’re receiving assistance from the International Red Crescent and other non-governmental agencies.

They lost their houses and farms – with valuable wheat ready to be reaped – when Islamic State militants moved north from Mosul challenging the Kurdish peshmerga militia in charge of the region’s defense.

The families fled to a camp near the Kurdish capital of Irbil. When the men returned to their village, they saw that their houses had been burned in fighting between the militants and government forces.

“They bombed my house,” said Mohammed Ahmed, 61, another Turkman farmer at the Baghdad clinic.

Ahmed had another reason to grow angry at the Islamic State last week. He learned that his 20-year-old son in the Iraqi army was killed while fighting the militants. He had little information from his son’s friends, and the army “doesn’t have the body.”

In another part of Baghdad, Kanna’s Assyrian Democratic Movement headquarters is hosting dozens of families who are running from battles in the country’s northern provinces.

Most of them had fled the village of Qaraqush, which the Islamic State assaulted earlier this month. The Assyrians ran as soon as they learned the Islamic State was nearby, having heard stories about the militants’ looting of Christians in other cities.

A few of them managed the dangerous drive to Baghdad.

“It was hell,” said Hania Marizina Tobia, 36, who paid hundreds of dollars to pile his wife and four kids into a van for a breakneck drive south. Their driver scouted for safe paths away from territories flying the Islamic State’s black flag.

Now Tobia’s is one of 16 families packed into an old office building at the Assyrian headquarters. The rooms are crowded with bunk beds and more mattresses laid across linoleum floors.

“We want our dignity. We are being humiliated. What kind of life is this?” said Fadi Jacob, another former Qaraqush resident.

On a hot afternoon last week, Basim Salim, 36, watched his daughters sprawled out on mattresses in the compound. They were too tired to move, having caught a 5 a.m. flight out of Irbil sponsored by the Assyrian political party.

Salim said he and others at the headquarters were giving up on Iraq. They wanted to get to Baghdad in part to secure passports and leave the country.

“We cannot fix Iraq if Iraq doesn’t want us,” he said.

McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.

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