Matthew Barber Reports On the Crisis in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region

By Matthew Barber in Syria Comment

The calm is slowly unraveling in Kurdistan, and a growing, pervasive anxiety is beginning to afflict us all.

We know that the fighting between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Islamic State jihadis continues to develop and move from place to place, but we’re never exactly sure what’s happening, where the fighting is occurring, or who has the upper hand. News—both local and international—has proved highly unreliable since this crisis began on Sunday.

“When I visited Shariya on Monday, it looked like this.” Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

By Wednesday, volunteers had registered over 63,000 displaced individuals (more had arrived and not registered). This was just one of several primary destinations for Sinjar’s refugees. I was informed by local relief coordinators that the needs of the refugees were beginning to exceed what the KRG and NGOs were able to provide.

But when I returned yesterday, something unbelievable had happened. Shariya was almost a ghost town… as silent as the grave.

Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

I found a few lingering volunteers and asked, “What happened here?” They replied, “Everyone fled this morning—the refugees as well as the local population of Shariya. Of approximately 80,000 people living here yesterday, only a couple hundred remain.”

This unbelievable second exodus is the result of a sense of panic that is washing across the Dohuk governorate. I had begun to sense it on Tuesday, while receiving panicked calls from Yazidis fleeing to Turkey. What initially prompted the stampede was the decision of many Yazidis in villages near Mosul—close to the further limit of Peshmerga-controlled territory—to leave and move northward, anticipating IS attacks in their area. Though IS hadn’t broken through Kurdish lines and no Yazidi villages had been infiltrated, fighting was taking place (and continues until now) between the Peshmerga and IS near the Mosul Dam and along the “border” with Mosul, and many Yazidis in those locations became fearful that what had just taken place in Sinjar might transpire in their areas as well.

Witnessing the ethnic cleansing of Sinjar, and sensing that an intentional campaign of extermination was being directed against them, Yazidis no longer felt secure about Peshmerga defensive capabilities and decided not to take any chances.

As waves of people from the southernmost villages began to arrive in villages a little closer to Dohuk (including Shariya), rumors began to circulate that Kurdish defenses had already been breached. I witnessed what verged upon mass hysteria as the local residents of villages near Dohuk decided to flee to Turkey. Those with passports and visas left; others tried to go as far north as possible, if they knew people who would take them in.

Read more at Syria Comment

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