Wary Sunni Arabs search for a place in a shifting Iraq
NEAR BASHIQA - When Kurdish forces began rounding up his relatives and friends, 23-year-old Iraqi Omar Abdallah fled with his pregnant wife and four brothers to Mosul. At the time, life under Islamic State (ISIS) seemed preferable for the Sunni Arab to indefinite detention.
That was shortly after ISIS captured large areas of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.
Now, Abdallah, his wife, Maha, and their two infant children have fled again. They huddle in the desert a short distance north-east of Mosul, where government forces, Kurdish fighters and Shia militias are fighting to drive out ISIS.
The family is waiting with hundreds of others near the town of Bashiqa to cross a trench dug by Kurdish peshmerga forces.
“We timed our escape well,” Abdallah said, explaining how the family moved from central Mosul to a relative’s home on the outskirts.
“When Iraqi forces recaptured the area, we left. Now we just want to go home,” he said.
But their hometown of Sheikhan is in an area controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government since 2003. It lies on the other side of the trench and a long earthen wall that the Kurds erected recently to mark their expanded territory — and could become a permanent new boundary.
Abdallah and his family are among thousands of Sunni Arabs struggling to find their place in an Iraq whose boundaries are shifting along ethnic lines, even before the anticipated defeat of ISIS.
With Iraq torn by sectarian strife, many Sunni Arabs fleeing Mosul now fear persecution for being perceived to support ISIS.
Having experienced ISIS rule for two years, Abdallah denies sympathising with the group that he calls by its Arabic acronym, Daesh. “Living in Mosul, I kept my head down, grew my beard long and worked as a fruit seller. I tried to avoid any contact with members of Daesh,” he said.
Nevertheless, Kurdish suspicions mean the family has found its way home blocked, at least for now.
“The peshmerga have searched people here in case there are Daesh fighters hiding among us. We all arrived this morning. They haven’t told us when we’ll be allowed to cross,” he said.
Abdallah said one of his brothers had spent 13 months detained without charge by Kurdish authorities on suspicion of supporting ISIS.
“After Daesh, the peshmerga began a crackdown,” he said, holding his 6-month-old son Ali in the back of their pickup truck. The vehicle was piled with blankets, clothes and what belongings they managed to salvage.
“It’s possible I’ll be arrested now, especially having lived under Daesh, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take to get home,” he said. “My parents have never seen their grandchildren. They call every day asking after Ali and Aboudi.”
Dozens of families, mostly Sunni Arabs, sat patiently in their cars or on tarpaulins in the dust waiting to cross into Kurdish-held territory.
Aid worker David Eubank, who has helped to ferry hundreds of displaced people to camps every night for several days, said they would probably be allowed to cross after dark and taken to camps or for further security and background checks.
Meanwhile peshmerga fighters provided some medical treatment to children, and distributed boxes of food sent by an international aid group.
Abdallah is relieved to have escaped harsh ISIS rule but remains apprehensive. “In Europe, if a migrant from Syria or Iraq blows himself up in a terrorist attack there is a backlash against all migrants. Here, with the Kurds and Arab Daesh sympathisers, it’s the same,” he said.
ISIS has carried out numerous atrocities, including against Kurds, Shias and Sunnis.
Abdallah said a neighbour and a friend had been expelled by Kurdish authorities on allegations of being ISIS supporters. “I also know people — Arabs — whose homes or villages have been destroyed,” he added.
Kurdish fighters were recently accused by a human rights group of unlawfully destroying Arab homes in areas they captured from ISIS between 2014 and May 2016, a charge Kurdish authorities deny.
Abdallah said such reports had in some cases driven Sunni Arabs into the arms of ISIS, which claims to be their protector.
With Kurdish leaders vowing to hold onto areas the peshmerga have seized from ISIS and Shia militias also making gains, he worries about the future of Mosul.“We’re scared that the Shia militias will come into the city, kill men and rape women,” he said, echoing Sunni fears of revenge attacks. Shia militias were accused this year of torturing Sunni civilians in areas they helped to recapture.
Iraq’s government has tried to ease fears of sectarian bloodshed, saying the army and the police will be the only forces allowed to enter Mosul.
With no sign they would be crossing before nightfall, the families began to wrap up in coats and hats as the temperature dropped and the sun set over Mosul.