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Life and Death in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan

UNHCR Camp in Northern Iraq: Gerald Paoli (left) with the Camp Nurse and child at the UNHCR camp in northern Iraq.UNHCR Camp in Northern Iraq: Gerald Paoli (left) with the Camp Nurse and child at the UNHCR camp in northern Iraq.By Gerald Paoli
May 20, 2009
Sulimanaya, Iraq

The Events Leading Up to Mohamed’s Death

The first Zarawa internally displaced persons (IDP) camp was in a valley in the Qandil Mountains. It wasn’t home, but it was situated next to a cool stream and was close to the eight villages of the 132 families, who had fled violence rained down on them by Turkey and Iran. Now, they live in the new Zarawa IDP camp built by the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Quandil Mountains: The Quandil Mountains in northern Iraq.Quandil Mountains: The Quandil Mountains in northern Iraq.The villagers have chosen to leave the mountains because they are exhausted from being under attack. Turkey and Iran have been bombing the border with Kurdistan for decades in an effort to eliminate the mountain bases of two Kurdish rebel groups, the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Iranian Kurdish group known as the Party for Free Life (PJAK).

Historically, seasonal bombings have been the norm in the northernmost region of Kurdistan. Bombings became a predictable part of an annual rhythm of life. But villagers adjusted to the anticipated attacks and continued to live in the manner dictated by their traditions and customs.

In December 2007, George Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan met to discuss strategies for “dealing” with the PKK.

Since then, the bombing have been more intense and regular.

Most members of the international community officially label the PKK and PJAK as terrorist organizations. Yet, as recently as 2006, the United States was supplying PJAK with intelligence and weapons to use against Tehran.

Turkey has attempted to purchase both armed and surveillance drones from Israel for use in border operations. However, Turkey’s government stated on May 19, 2009, that it might cancel a 2005 contract to purchase ten drones from Israel because of delayed delivery. It’s also worth noting that Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sternly criticized Israel’s 22-day Operation Cast Lead assaults against Gaza, begun on December 22, 2008.

On March 10, 2009, Iran broke a one-month-old cease-fire. As a result, an 18-month-old boy named Mohamed was killed while sleeping nestled between his parents. Mohamed’s parents, injured and stricken with grief, are angry that they were lulled into a false sense of security by the cease-fire. They decided to join in the exodus down from the mountain to the new Zarawa camp.

UNHCR CampUNHCR CampLife in the New Zarawa IDP Camp

The camp nurse and several small children greeted us as we entered the new camp. She invited us into her UNHCR-supplied tent. A furrowed brow replaced her broad smile as she began to describe her fears for the villagers living here.

“I am afraid for the old people and the young ones,” said the nurse, who is concerned that they won’t survive the summer heat. “When people live so close to each other many diseases will come and spread quickly.” Looking at the children, she wrung her hands. “Dysentery and dehydration are sure to follow.”

There are 45 tents for 132 families. That comes to roughly three families per every two tents. Each tent measures 4 meters by 4 meters wide by 2.2 meters high, pitched over a slab of cement that is 9 square meters, framed by a border of cinder blocks two rows high. They are lined with gold-colored canvas on the inside and topped with gray canvas on the outside.

The residents of Zarawa camp have devised a system of sharing tents by rotating with each other, spending some time living with their families in the municipality and some time in the camp. While in school, children live with relatives in the Zarawa municipality, separated from their nuclear families.

Because of the great strain on the local economy and on what few public services are available, the municipality of Zarawa was reluctant to allow construction of the new camp and created several obstacles. The UNHCR recognizes that the site is not a sustainable resettlement solution for the camp’s residents.

The location is barren and desolate. There is not one tree for shade. The villagers cannot have animals of any kind in the camp. This is just as well because they had to sell what animals they could to buy the plot of land on which the camp is built. There is no electricity. The UNHCR has promised them a well, but the villagers have a wait-and-see attitude about whether or not this will ever happen. And since nearly every inch of land they occupy is covered with either a tent or a toilet, they cannot grow any food inside the camp.

The empty adjacent field mocks the villagers with the possibility of food it could provide. But they can’t grow food there either because it is private property. So, they rely on what relief they get from the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) rations and the meager supplies the Iraq national food card can buy them.

This is the situation of Kurdish villagers, who have been forced to leave their homes and have chosen not to go back until the political situation is resolved. Their very existence is rarely glimpsed by internationals, as the villagers live beyond the “radar” of mainstream news. Yet, their simple survival depends on being beyond the cross hairs of sophisticated weapons peddled by international traders.