An elusive ethnic minority’s struggle for existence in the north of Iraq
Words by Sofia Barbarani. Photos and Video by Metrography.
The air is thick with dust and the smell of sewage in Chermo camp where a cluster of prefabricated cabins house 196 members of the Shabak minority.
Brittle fencing draped in freshly-washed clothes separates the makeshift homes from a busy highway; a linear strip of hot tarmac that runs from the town of Chamchamal to the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The barren piece of land was lent to the families cost-free by a wealthy Kurdish tribe.
Following an ISIS raid on the ethnically mixed towns of Nineveh in August 2014, virtually every Shabak – some 250,000 – fled their hometowns in search of safety.
Qasem uses a stick to support his 83 year-old body as he walks past the shipping container he now calls home. He stops for a moment, peers into the void, his mind lost in meditation. A few minutes go by and then he resumes walking, but with that vacant look still on his face. It brightens, though, when a stranger walks past and Qasem insists on greeting him with a kiss. All he says is “I’m waiting for salvation.” He continues walking.
“The elusive Shabak community is scattered throughout the Nineveh Plains, a region to the north and east of Mosul that has been largely terrorized by ISIS. They have been oppressed and persecuted by past regimes and Islamic extremists as a result of widespread misinformation regarding who they are. While some consider themselves ethnically distinct, others claim to be Muslim Kurds with a Shiite majority and a Sunni minority. However, unfounded reports have in past identified Shabaks as an extreme Shiite sect and apostates because of their alleged unorthodox practices. They have also been subject to the push and pull between Baghdad and the Kurds, as both factions have sought to assimilate the tiny community for political gains.”
Like Kurdish, their language has Indo-European roots and often borrows from neighboring languages including Turkish, Persian and the Kurdish Hawraman dialect. As is the case with most minority languages, the Shabak language is considered a dialect – this means that it is not taught at school and is therefore at risk of becoming extinct, along with the Shabak identity.
Inside the camp narrow alleys punctured by slim sewage waterways snake between cabins where children clasp plastic guns in battle scene recreations while their veiled mothers line up beneath the torrid morning sun to receive rice, oil, milk and sugar.
“This is the first food distribution we have had in three months. Before they used to come every two weeks or so,” complains 68-year-old Azadeen, a former headmaster who was forced to flee Bartella with his family on August 7th, after that ISIS took control of his hometown.
He sits cross-legged in his cabin, a rectangular plastic box that he and his family have grown to call home. Inside, the air conditioning lends some respite from the heat while the television flashes quietly in the corner. His wife struggles to breathe as a result of the tumultuous year they have been through and the harsh living conditions on the camp. He has a breathing condition that he says gets worse in the heat. In this part of Iraqi Kurdistan temperatures can easily reach 50 degrees.
In August 2014, Kurdistan’s military came under harsh criticism when they retreated from Nineveh as ISIS advanced, leaving vulnerable residents to fend for themselves. “The Kurdish forces told us they would take care of us, but they left us,” says Azadeen. He recalls hundreds of people streaming out of their homes and onto the main road in the dead of night, making their way towards the safety of the Kurdish enclave: “A one-year-old child died en route to Sulaymaniyah,” he says, recounting the perils of travelling at night.
The family-of-five waited for hours at the Erbil checkpoint as hundreds of cars with Nineveh number plates backed up behind them. Once they reached the Kurdish region, the family continued their journey southeast towards Chamchamal.
Azadeen had already lived in Chamchamal in 1986 when his family sought refuge in the town after the Baath Regime began forcing Kurds out. “We were Kurdish, so we were told to move to Kurdistan.”
Azadeen’s son is a 24 year-old Peshmerga fighter named Yousef Fazel. He is less critical of the military, explaining that they retreated from Nineveh because they were poorly armed and unable to take on the fierce extremists. The Kurdish military has been asking the international community for heavy weapons to battle ISIS.
“We kept ISIS at bay for over a month but our commander told us we should leave because they were approaching,” explains Yousef who lost one of his close friends to the insurgents. “He couldn’t run and he was killed,” says the young soldier. Like most Peshmerga fighters Yousef was forced to buy his own AK47 and ammunition because his government couldn’t afford to.
“They attacked because of our religion; they came to force Islamic rule on us,” says Yousef.
He took to making weekly trips to Chamchamal to buy drinking water after a dead rat was found inside his water tank. “Now we only use the water they bring us for washing,” he says. “We expected this to end soon, but it hasn’t.”
Like many of the victims of ISIS, most of the members of this tiny community are looking for ways to leave Iraq.
Former vegetable seller Hayder says he is ready to leave Iraq and “live where there are no Arabs.” To him the atrocities carried out by ISIS have tainted a whole people.
He leans back on a plastic chair, chain-smoking a pack of slim cigarettes. “I’ve no work now and I am quicker to get angry,” he admits. The faded outline of the letter “A” inside a heart-shaped tattoo is barely visible on his right arm. “My first love,” he smiles, recalling times long gone.
Slowly fading memories and the clothes on their backs are all that the families have left almost a year after they were forced to flee their hometowns.
“Everyone is psychologically scarred; we just want things to be how they were in the past,” says Hayder who spends his day visiting friends in their respective cabins or sitting out in the dusty field at night when the temperature drops.
One of the men Hayder pays regular visits to is Essam Selman, a 50-year-old Kurd from Baghdad and the only non-Shabak in the camp.
Essam’s stark cabin is a far cry from the other neat, air-conditioned accommodations – an indication that he and his two sons have been deprived of a wife and a mother.
“My wife was killed by a car bomb explosion in May 2007,” he explains, his towering frame out of place in the cramped plastic home. The same explosion burnt the right side of his back and arm where a patchwork of painful scars still cause him sleepless nights. Beside him boxes of pain medications are piled high on a set of plastic drawers.
Essam, who once worked for Iraq’s Ministry of Media, left Baghdad with his family after an unknown militia kidnapped his youngest son and held him for eleven months. The eleven-year-old boy sits quietly in a corner of the room, shooting occasional sideway glances at his older brother.
“They don’t have clean clothes to wear or water to wash with. How can they go to school?” says Essam.
The man struggles to converse, instead an aggrieved smile unfurls on his weary face as he explains that he cannot work because of his scars.
“We don’t want to go back [to Baghdad] but this place doesn’t offer anything, we ask for more but no one responds,” he says. Even the frequent visits by journalists have not led to any changes, he complains.
Mustafa doesn’t understand what dreams and wishes are. Only after he hears the question “what are your dreams and wishes?” a dozen times is he able to answer. “I dreamed that we had a house in Chamchamal,” he responds. His father explains again what dreams and wishes are and Mustafa answers again. “I dream of us at home on a Sunday, just me, my father and my brother. And I know that it will happen soon.”
Not far from Essam’s cabin lives Zeema, a 38 year-old woman whose husband is on the frontline ten days a month fighting with the Peshmerga.
“Our situation is better than some others, because our children have survived,” she says.
Zeema smiles but admits that she worries about her husband who is due to return in two days; like most Peshmerga fighters, he hasn’t received his salary for months which has put tremendous strain on the family. Zeema admits to missing Bartella and the comforts of her own home. She recalls leaving her hometown the moment they heard that ISIS was approaching. “I was scared for my children.”
Summer in Chermo Camp is as harsh as the winter and the displaced families struggle to adapt to the two extremes. Regular water becomes harder to come by during the hot months while warming up the flimsy cabins in winter can be difficult. This is a concern for the camp, whose oldest resident is 85 and youngest barely six months old.
The month of August marked one year since the residents of the tiny enclave left their old lives behind and embarked on their journey towards safety. It is unlikely that they will return to Bartella soon, as ISIS’ violent tactics show no sign of abating. The mass displacement in Iraq has already seen more than three million flee their homes, in a tragic scenario that is likely to continue and a number of IDPs that is certainly going to increase.
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On August 3rd 2014, ISIS insurgents attacked the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar in an attempt to expand their so-called ‘caliphate.’ During the weeks following the fall of the city, the Sunni militants who see the Yazidi people as devil worshippers carried out a genocidal campaign, killing tens of thousands of people and kidnapping over 5,000 women who they later sold into sexual slavery.
YEARS OF WANDERING IN THE LAND OF IRAQ
When the Americans came so did al-Qaeda waving the banner of religion. They made a few military operations against the Americans to gain people’s trust and support, but then started slaughtering them. Either you supported them or they killed you. Meanwhile, they wore shorts in the evening and played sports with the Americans to convince them that they were not terrorists.
The Kurds in northern Iraq were suffering under the burden of a long frontier war with the Islamic State (ISIS), a financial crisis and the arrival of more than one million people displaced by war, altering the ethnic balance of their proto state. Shaqlawa, once a popular holiday destination had become a shelter for thousands of Iraqi Arabs fleeing the grinding war further south who now outnumbered the local Kurdish population.
THE EXEMPLARY SCHOOL OF SITAK
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.
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.
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.
OIL AND BLOOD
Zaidoon’s seventeen year-old cousin, Jamal, darts through the refinery’s enormous storage drums. He is trying to fill a jerry can with gasoline for one of the truck drivers who’s pulled up in an empty tanker. Jamal runs over to the huge drum that holds the gasoline and throws open the spigot at the bottom. A jet of black liquid shoots out which then turns clear. Jamal cups his hand and catches some of it, bringing it up to his face as if he’s about to take a sip.
THE ORPHANS OF ALQOSH
One evening late in the summer of 2014 people from five villages in the province of Nineveh streamed onto the roads along with the orphans from Alqosh. Between their cars and ISIS stood only burning pyres of rubbish and an emptying no man’s land. Milad Hani, 9, and his brother Wissam, 11, were part of the exodus.
THE BUTCHER OF KHALAKAN
Thirteen year-old Ali fled the violence in Salahaddin and found refuge in the remote Kurdish village of Khalakan where he works as a butcher.
TWO RELIGIONS ONE ROOF
Maysun Yalda and Widad Fadill sit opposite each other, sipping tea under a brightly coloured rug. “It’s Jesus,” says Maysun, pointing towards the male figure sewn into the heavy tapestry hanging from her kitchen wall. 44-year-old Maysun is a Christian from Tel Kaif in Nineveh, some 400km north of 47-year-old Widad’s hometown of Fallujah in Anbar, a Sunni stronghold.
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.