by Peggy Faw Gish 10 September, 2014
In the hot afternoon sun, two children dart into the small grocery store near our house and come out smiling with popcicles. A woman responds to my greeting of “choni bashi?” as she fills up a bag of plums. As the afternoon sun starts to drop closer to the horizon, clusters of boys are out on our street playing football (soccer). Even though Kurdish and international forces are fighting the Islamic State (IS) two and a half hours away, life, in Iraqi Kurdistan, goes on.
A shadow, however, looms over the people in the Kurdish region of Iraq. They follow the news daily, feeling relief when they hear that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have taken back towns on the edge of Mosul from the IS fighters. But they also remember early August, when the Peshmerga had been protecting the city of Shangal (Sinjar) and the surrounding areas, but then withdrew from the area—claiming they had run out of ammunition. That allowed IS soldiers to come in and terrorize the Yazidi people. For many, this eroded the trust they had in the primary forces protecting them. They wonder if the Peshmerga—now with international forces fighting alongside them and with more sophisticated weapons from western countries—is strong enough to keep IS from advancing closer to the Kurdish region.
Even though IS had been collaborating over the past years with some Sunni populations in Iraq, in their opposition to the oppressive actions of the al-Maliki government, it was when IS took over the city of Mosul in early June that the world took notice. Fear heightened all over Iraq. Yet, it seemed that IS was moving toward Baghdad and not the northern Kurdish region, so the Kurds drew a deep breath. Possibilities of danger loomed on the horizon, but didn’t seem imminent. Then, on August 3, the front got a little closer when IS captured the Mosul Dam and the city of Sinjar. Peshmerga forces responded with attempts to retake some captured towns on the edge of the Kurdish region. But it came as a surprise, when, on August 6, IS seized four strategic towns on a key highway and advanced to positions just minutes from Erbil, the capitol of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
An increased wave of fear swept over the Kurdish region. Many airlines canceled flights in and out of the Erbil Airport. International companies and organizations began to evacuate personnel. A few NGOs in Suleimani, where we live—about a two and half hour drive away from Erbil—canceled plans to bring in international interns and delegations.
For the people, memories resurfaced of Saddam’s regime’s genocide against the Kurds in the late 1980s and of other times in their past when their families fled violence by going to Iran or Turkey. Now, on TV, there are features showing photos of Kurdish families fleeing during the uprising against Saddam’s regime in 1991, next to almost identical photos of people fleeing IS today. For them, history seems to repeat itself every few decades.
The Kurds of Suleimani have some comfort knowing that Peshmerga soldiers, along with international troops, are pushing IS forces farther away. And since the closest IS controlled area is a two hour drive away, people would be able to see signs of IS forces approaching before they reached their doorstep.
This underlying danger, however, is not the only way the threat from the IS has impacted Kurdish society. In addition to the more than 200,000 Syrian refugees currently in the Kurdish region, an estimated 850,000 displaced persons from embroiled areas of Iraq have come into the Kurdish region in the past three months, putting a strain on government revenues and services. For some of the population, latent resentments toward Arabs come to the surface. Housing has become tighter and rents have almost doubled in many residential areas. In Duhok Province alone, more than 600 schools are still being used for housing displaced people. While work has started to build more displacement camps to house them, schools there and in some other areas, will be late in opening this fall.
This January, Baghdad stopped sending the Kurdish Region’s allotted 17% of the country’s oil revenues to the KRG, in protest against the Kurds independently exporting oil to Turkey. Because of this, Kurdish government employees and civil servants (including teachers) have had wages delayed, month by month. Increased prices of gasoline and some other commodities have set off a wave of public protests around the region. And now, an increasing number of families worry for their husband or sons who have joined the Peshmerga fighting IS on the frontlines.
All these things add stress and instability to the lives of Iraqi Kurds. The underlying threat and fear are real. So is the additional strain on society’s resources and the uncertainties about their future. Yet, in spite of this, normal daily life does go on. Here in our neighborhood, school opened this morning, so masses of children were walking along the streets and gathering excitedly in front of the school across the street from our house. Men and women still go to work, ride the buses, walk the streets going to the corner grocery shop or bakery, and go on picnics at beautiful waterfalls in the mountains. Each day they help out their neighbors, and love their families. With friends, they still sit around on mats on the floor, enjoying Kurdish traditional foods. They also donate material goods for those fleeing their homes, remembering that not so long ago, their families were among those terrorized and seeking refuge.