Stories of Survival and New Beginnings from the Laylan IDP Camp in Kirkuk, Iraq
Style on the Fringes of War
For one Tikriti barber, hair was a battle line even before ISIS took control. Fighters came to twenty- three year-old Marwan’s barber shop and threatened to cut off his fingers if he carried on cutting hair in western styles, but with a family to support he had to carry on. His shop was attacked three times before finally being burnt to the ground when ISIS stormed the city in June 2014. Armed only with scissors to start a new life, he fled.
Marwan concentrates hard as he razors the cheeks of displaced teenagers in Laylan camp, 20km south of Kirkuk. He graduated with top marks from school in Tikrit he says, adding proudly that he was trained by the barber of Hussein Kamel al-Majid, a son-in-law of former dictator Saddam Hussein who defected and was executed on his return.
22/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — A view of Laylan IDP camp at night. Laylan camp is 20 KM south of Kirkuk. UNHCR and the municipality of Kirkuk built the camp with around 1500 tents. Around 8450 people live in the camp.
In the summer of 2014 ISIS declared an Islamic caliphate across Iraq and Syria after rampaging through large areas of both countries. Laylan camp opened last December and took in families from Iraq’s northern and central provinces who had been sleeping for months in mosques or churches in Kirkuk. The camp was projected to hold 7,500 but now holds around 9,000. Caught between government forces, Shiite militias and ISIS, the predominantly Sunni Arab residents of Laylan now teeter on the edge of the safer Kurdistan region but are viewed with suspicion so cannot tread further north with ease.
So far the recapture of Tikrit, 190km northwest of Baghdad, at the beginning of April by Iraqi forces with the support of coalition air strikes has not meant families here can go home. A few have ventured back, says camp manager Azad Abdulhamid, but most families are still too scared to return. Instead more families who were living in abandoned buildings elsewhere have arrived.
The camp’s broad lanes are dotted with outdoor printing shops and soup stands as residents build new lives, unsure when it will be safe enough to return to home. Across the track from Marwan’s shop a man from Salahaddin sells small bowls of chicken-laced broth to groups of children, squinting in the midday winter sun.
22/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — The barber’s tent at the Laylan IDP camp, south of Kirkuk.
Marwan, the barber from Tikrit, charges residents what they can afford, forgoing the 8 dollar fee he charged back in Tikrit. At the edge of Kurdish controlled Kirkuk at the Maktab Khalid checkpoint, ISIS guards confiscated the scissors Marwan had brought from the remains of his shop. “OK, you can cross,” one fighter said, “but without the scissors.” On the uneven ground strewn with hair shavings, a small crowd of teenage boys gather to observe Marwan’s work.
“My shop was worth 13 million dinars [$11,000] and they burnt it to the ground,” he said looking around his new shop made of plastic sheets and wooden poles. He left Tikrit with just 100,000 dinars [$80] and shares a tent with his family of nine. A neighbouring barber loaned him a purple flowery chair to use and the rest of the shop is furnished with discarded junk; a soda bottle is being used as a pot and a polystyrene box serves as a table.
Marwan is tall with wide features and a broad smile. He runs his hands back through his light brown hair and says he would like to grow it longer, but that could bring trouble. People here are afraid to have long hair because of the checkpoints,” he says, referring to the entry points of the safer Kurdistan region. His customers don’t want to look like ISIS fighters.
US marine style haircuts are popular but Cristiano Ronaldo’s haircut is the most popular, he says as he cuts smooth crescents along fourteen year old Baha’s jaw. “Better than Messi,” his customer chimes in with a flash of a smile.
22/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — An Iraqi boy with the Barcelona football club’s t-shirt walks among tents and plastic sheets in the Laylan IDP cam in south of Kirkuk.
Baha, from Makhmour 70km south of Mosul, sits in the barber’s chair and is watched by a group of friends. “I would like a beard like Marwan’s – not like an ISIS beard,” he says bashfully.
“This boy’s father is religious so he doesn’t want his hair in a western style,” Marwan adds sounding disappointed to be doing another short back and sides.
But religion is not the only concern for patrons here. Marwan shifts his view and points out a patch of grey just above Baha’s left temple. “This guy is fourteen years old.” He blames the fear of violence and the stress of displacement on a rash of teenagers coming to his shop with grey hair. “They are scared of what’s happening with ISIS,” he sighs placing the buzzing razor back across Baha’s head.
Memories of Sudan
Not far from Marwan’s shop, sixty year old Adam is taking a rest from distributing kerosene, a job that earns him just a few hundred dollars a month. He watches his children nervously as they play. Adam is Sudanese, not Iraqi, and worries about teasing from neighbouring children because of the family’s darker skin. Adam came to Iraq at the end of the 1980’s to avoid civil war and poverty, not expecting his adopted town would be overrun by militants.
In their tent a flattened denim skirt lies by the door as a welcome mat and a TV casts blue and green light on the canvas walls. The sky outside is a cool winter blue and fourteen year old Omar, Adam’s oldest son, walks in and out restlessly. It’s the weekend but there’s very little to do. “We don’t have any toys so sometimes they fight with stones,” says Adam.
In Sudan, Adam’s brother joined the army and was killed while fighting the rebels. “I refused to be a soldier after he died, but the draft was obligatory.” Many of his neighbours also died in similar clashes and he decided his only choice was to flee.
20/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — Omer helps his father when he distributes kerosene to IDP’s at Laylan IDP camp, south of Kirkuk. His father is originally from Sudan but has came to Iraq as a refugee 14 years ago. On September 12th, when the Iraqi army started air strikes over the province, they left and sought refugee in Kirkuk.
After the Iran-Iraq war came to a bloody halt, Saddam Hussein invited migrant workers from Arab countries to come to Iraq. “At that time they said, ‘You can come to our cities, our streets and see that all is safe.’” Adam immediately made preparations to leave.
He became part of the over 600,000 Sudanese refugees now living abroad. He changed his passport and sailed out of Port Sudan to Jeddah and then on to Cairo in 1989. Adam appreciated the calm in Cairo. “It was beautiful, a city for tourists,” he says reminiscing, looking down at the blank stares emanating from his children. “It was cheap, but I heard Iraq was cheaper.”
In Iraq at the end of the war Adam found opportunities to work. “Sometimes dictators have benefits.” He smiles darkly. “The security situation was better then.” He stayed in Baghdad for a month before taking a job as a builder at a factory in Shirqat, 100km south of Mosul. Later, after the fall of Saddam in 2003 he remembers the machines in the factory were stolen as security collapsed.
“After 2003 the situation went from bad to worse. Before the roads were safe but now I’m afraid of travelling on them because of the militias,” he says. In Shirqat, Adam worked as a carpenter and then a farmer growing tomatoes, sunflowers and sesame. Latterly he distributed tea in the town’s main bazaar. Awatif Saeed, 31, Adam’s wife of fourteen years grew up on a neighbouring farm. She has long eyelashes, a kind, sad smile and was born in the southern city of Basrah.
20/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — Adam and his wife Awatif at the wash rooms, in front of their tent at Laylan IDP camp, south of Kirkuk.
When the jihadis overran Salahadin last summer and the Iraqi army fled, ISIS fighters occupied homes in the town. Adam feared his family might become the victims of airstrikes. “We would have stayed there if they hadn’t captured those houses,” he says. Adam was never directly threatened by ISIS but he did hear about the executions of policemen happening further south. In June ISIS massacred hundreds of army recruits in Tikrit. Instead it was the air strikes that forced him to run in July. “It is hard to imagine what we saw when we witnessed Iraqi aeroplanes bombing our neighbours,” he says, adding “sometimes we hear aeroplanes now and my wife and children get scared.”
The family came to Kirkuk and took shelter in a school building, receiving food aid from a local imam before the authorities moved them onto Laylan camp. They are now just one family from the nearly three million people displaced by fighting in Iraq. With the safer Kurdistan region harder to access, Adam’s family remain in Laylan camp but worry that even among outsiders they are viewed differently. “I keep my children away from the neighbours’ children. Maybe they don’t like our children because we look different.” He says, “We just say ‘Salam,’ we don’t visit them and they don’t visit us.”
20/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — Omer plays football with his friends in Laylan IDP camp, south of Kirkuk.
Adam says life in the camp is hard; he says he hasn’t received food from the UN for two months and they are running out of money. Feelings of instability mean he hasn’t read the Koran for three months. Instead he prays alone in his tent.
“The only good thing here is the electricity and water – if we could eat them, then things would be fine,” he says sadly. Awatif would like to go to Sudan with her husband. He agrees but without the money to do so, such dreams are impossible. It is memories of Sudan that offer Adam the most hope: “I miss all the birds and the weather there, the earth and the water, normal people. I miss the forests and everything – that’s my country,” he says staring out of the flap door of the tent to the dirt ground beyond.
Grieving for lost loved ones
Across the camp the mood is sombre in sixty-three year old Sulaiman’s tent. His cousin Hazbar is laying out the ID cards of his dead children who were killed by aerial bombardment while trying to reach safety.
The family grew oranges and lemons on their farm near Muqdadiyah before fighting between ISIS and Iraqi security forces forced them to leave their citrus orchards. “Our area was partly taken by ISIS,” Hazbar says adding that they were stuck between two sides. “If we went to ISIS we would have a problem and if we went to the army we would have problems too.”
As they fled towards the Kurdish north at the end of September, they flew a white flag above their convoy of cars to show they were civilians, but it didn’t work. Iraqi army rained bombs down on them, the family say, splintering the bodies of the vehicles. Hazbar had to hastily cover the dead.
Sulaiman’s face is lined and he wears a white embroidered cap. He speaks with slow purpose and looks down lovingly at his granddaughter Nour, who lost her mother and three brothers in the raid. Her father Zuhair was later picked up by Shiite militia men and taken away. The family haven’t heard from him since. Zuhair was also a farmer, “I hope my dad comes back. I only want him back,” says Nour softly.
15/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — Noor and her cousin in front of her tent. Noor Zuher is 11 years old, from Sador village in Diyala. On September 20th war planes started bombing people escaping their villages in the province of Diyala, on the way to Qaratapa: Noor lost her mother and 2 brothers, and on the same day the Shiea militia took her father. She now lives with her grandfather in the Laylan IDP camp south of Kirkuk.
“They took him because we are Sunni so they think we’re ISIS,” says Nour’s cousin, Ali. “Having a Sunni name is a problem.”
“We felt we are not Iraqi, that we don’t know who we are anymore,” says Sulaiman. He and Nour left for Laylan a week before the attack and arrived safely, but the family estimate that forty people from their convoy died on the road.
Soft sunlight strains through the walls of the tent as Hazbar fiddles with his children’s ID cards and the family look on. Mahmoud, 12, one of Hazbar’s surviving sons lifts his top to show burn marks from the blast.
“They continued to bomb us so we had to run. We put the women and children in one car, some were wounded and we couldn’t bring them to the hospital so they died on the road, like Nour’s mum, her mum was killed and her brothers died on the road, they were bleeding.“
17/01/2015 — Kirkuk, Iraq — Noor and her friend play in the camp. Noor Zuher is 11 years old, from Sador village in Diyala. On September 20th war planes started bombing people escaping their villages in the province of Diyala, on the way to Qaratapa: Noor lost her mother and 2 brothers, and on the same day the Shiea militia took her father. She now lives with her grandfather in the Laylan IDP camp south of Kirkuk.
In the centre of the camp displaced children watched by aid workers build toy structures with cardboard: boats, ships, houses. But under their thin winter clothes many of them have the scars of war and need specialist medical care.
Mahmoud has shrapnel lodged inside his left lung. He was sitting in the back of the car near where the bomb hit. Nour’s mum, who was 28, was killed in the explosion along with Hazbar’s children Nazar, 15, Omar,18, Nermeed, 23, and Ahmed, 16.
From Kirkuk they tried to reach the hospital in Sulaimaniyah, but were turned away at the checkpoint even though Hazbar showed the security guards his son’s burnt back. “I tried a lot but they said no. It was Eid and security was very tight.” Hazbar came back to Laylan and took Mahmoud to the camp doctor. To get to the hospital in Kirkuk as Sunni Arabs they need a Kurdish sponsor to vouch for them, but they didn’t have one.
Hazbar says that as an Iraqi, he doesn’t understand why he wasn’t let in, but he also praises the hospitality of the Kurdistan region. Later, the camp doctor said Mahmoud can go to the Kirkuk hospital in an ambulance if his symptoms are serious enough, but said he didn’t know the details of Mahmoud’s case. “We will never forget about what happened and when we think about it we cry,” says Sulaiman.
In late January accounts emerged of an alleged massacre of villagers in Barwana, near Muqdadiyah carried out by Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces after they pushed ISIS from the area. At least 70 residents were reported to be killed. A few days later Ali Ahmed, Nour’s uncle, waited in his tent for news of his brother when a neighbour rang. Ali’s brother had been shot with dozens of others, the man on the phone said. Ali felt helpless. “What can we do? The government supports the Shiite militias and as Sunnis they think we’re with ISIS.”
In the camp one morning a plane passes overhead and Awatif, Adam’s wife looks up with a start. Marwan doesn’t hear the noise and continues to cut hair in his make shift shop. For Sulaiman returning home seems a long way off after news of the killings. Stuck between different factions in Iraq and trailed with suspicion, Adam, Marwan and Sulaiman must build their lives again at edge of Kirkuk.
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Isn’t this the story of every mosque, house and city in the Middle East? A mosque is built over the ruins of a church which has been built over the ruins of a synagogue which has been built on the ruins of an ancient temple; and someone comes to ruin it all over again. Ruins inherit ruins, and generations follow generations. They rise from the ashes and restore everything, a long feverish struggle for survival. We cannot call it a war because it isn’t, regardless of the fact that we are all fighting for a dream.
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AT THE CHICKEN FARM
The chicken farm stands amid an expanse of wheat fields at the end of a long dirt road several kilometers from the nearest village. It was lush and green when the 47 Sunni Arab families from Jarallah arrived and the ripening wheat stalks rippled in the wind. Now the harvest is over and the parched golden stubble gives up clouds of dust when the wind blows.
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THE BUTCHER OF KHALAKAN
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GRAND BAGHDAD HOTEL
I can’t remember my experience in the Grand Baghdad Hotel just by merely thinking of the name because this place looks nothing like a hotel nor does it have anything to do with the glamorous name it bears. Instead, I think of the charming film The Grand Budapest Hotel where cinema beautifies tragedy and where protagonists die smiling or in the middle of a romantic kiss.