'We did not expect Mosul to fall in two days'
By Sofia Barbarani | Al Jazeera | Published: June 20, 2014
KALAK, Iraq — A group of approximately 30 tents stands shaken by gusts of hot wind next to the city of Kalak, Kurdistan region. Propped up on high ground, Khazer camp is a temporary shelter for some 1,600 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Iraq's Nineveh province.
The swift takeover of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), over a week ago, prompted the mass exodus of civilians and Iraqi soldiers resulting in the displacement of approximately 500,000 people - 300,000 of whom have found safety in the largely insulated Kurdish enclave.
While some have accommodations in the cities, those without a sponsor or family member residing in Kurdistan are forced to stay in the camps that are being set up by the Kurdish government in cooperation with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Twenty-two-year-old Ahmad Sabah arrived at the camp on Monday with seven family members after four days in Erbil. "We couldn't stay [in Erbil], we didn't have enough money to pay for rent," Sabah told Al Jazeera.
According to Protection Cluster Iraq, the majority of IDPs interviewed in Erbil said they did not have the means to stay in the city for more than a week.
Sabah is a soldier in the Iraqi army and like many of his fellow soldiers, he says he fled Mosul fearing the targeted killings of Iraqi military forces that have been carried out by ISIL and publicly displayed on social media.
In a conflict that has left an indelible black mark on Iraq's military record, it is still unclear why 30,000 soldiers felt threatened by what has been reported as less than 1,000 militants.
"There were strikes and they mainly killed soldiers, I'm a soldier and my father is a policeman - we were afraid," Sabah explained.
"Their [ISIL] treatment of people is not good, especially with soldiers, if they know you belong to the Iraqi army…" he trailed off.
While the army deserted the city in fear, leaving behind vehicles and uniforms, most civilians do not seem worried about the Sunni insurgents.
"We are not afraid of ISIL, they don't hurt people, we are afraid of the airstrikes," said one man who asked to remain anonymous. According to him, his family of 11 had been denied entry into Erbil by Kurdish security and had been forced to relocate to the camp, despite having family in the city.
"The biggest challenge has been not being able to pass through the checkpoint, we want to buy some food and fuel for cars … we would try to rent a house and work," said the head of the family.
An elderly man stood outside his tent surrounded by family members and curious neighbours. His anger was undoubtedly directed at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and was set in the belief that: "Maliki is the cause of the state of Iraq." His immediate concern was getting past the Kurdish security and finding a barber in the neighbouring city - "I just want to go to Kalat to get a shave," he said.
Dindar Zebari, assistant head of DFR for International Organisations said he was not aware of these families being turned away. "There are no measures to discriminate to enter the KRG. The Kurdish Gov has been very clear, we give them permission to come in. There is a Peshmerga-led process to make sure minorities are being protected," Zebari said.
In a conflict that has engulfed the north of the country, prompting international intervention, those who have been directly affected say their daily struggle is living without the comforts of life back in Mosul.
A few metres down the dusty path, two women chatted as they made their way back to their tent. "We miss everything - our home, our family, our friends, and our neighbours," said the younger one, who chose not to disclose her name.
She told tales of war, and like most of Khazer's IDPs, she explained that she had survived one too many turmoils and no longer feared for her life. "I am 52 years old … I have lived through the Gulf War, Iran-Iraq and the Americans."
"I don't believe in Iraq any more, we want asylum in other countries," she said.
When asked if she had faith in Maliki's ability to reverse what many have described as the breakup of Iraq, she replied: "We have lost hope in all the governments, we have not been comfortable with any of them. We don't have any patience left, it's enough suffering".
According to Nineveh UNHCR Protection, Assistance and Reintegration Centre (PARC), approximately 4,000 families have returned to Mosul, most of whom were under the impression that military activity had stopped and water and electricity had resumed.
Despite thousands of people allegedly going back to the city, many are still arriving from the conflict areas, pushing Khazer camp to the brink of capacity.
"We call on the international community to support the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the organisations in the region … there are not enough tents or food supplies for the refugees," Masrur Aswad of the Independent Human Rights Commission told Al Jazeera.
"This is a transit camp, not a permanent one. We are considering opening a bigger site to aid 8,000 people," explained Camp Manager Simon Ravelli, from the non-profit group ACTED.
In two days the camp received 1,000 new IDPs making it hard for the organisations working on the ground to accommodate them. A group of men had gathered around Ravelli, demanding better tent allocations. "We have a lot of people coming and there is a lack of space," he told Al Jazeera.
That day 30 residents of Tal Afar, over 100km west of Khazer had reached the camp by foot. On Monday, ISIL seized the city forcing its largely Shia and Turkmen residents to flee. Two of the men said they had not eaten or drank since they left home in the morning and explained that they had escaped the city following alleged bombings by the Iraqi army.
According to Khalida Yaseen, her family was also forced to flee their hometown because of airstrikes. "There were airstrikes but I only heard the explosions, I don't know if it was from ISIL or the Iraqi army," said the 60-year-old woman from Mosul.
"It was very difficult to come here, my husband was sick and the kids were scared and crying and they wanted water. We kept low, afraid of the fighting," Yaseen recalled.
She sat on one of the mattresses provided by UNHCR, a mound of stale bread laid on one side of the tent and dozens of water bottles on the other. "We have a home in Mosul, my son is a doctor, my children all finished school. We were in a good house where everything was organised … it is very difficult to get used to this," Yaseen said.
"It was unexpected, we did not expect Mosul to fall in two days," she said.