Members of Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities who sought refuge from hardline Sunni insurgents in semi-autonomous Iraqi-Kurdistan have been forced to flee once again after recent fighting. Now, housed in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the regional capital of Erbil, some told VICE News that they feel powerless and used for political means by Kurdish authorities.
The Islamic State overran a large swathe of northern Iraq in June, including the second largest city of Mosul, prompting a mass exodus of non-Sunnis who feared they would be detained or killed by the group. Many settled in internally displaced person camps just inside Iraqi Kurdistan's borders, including one at Khazir on the road out of Mosul. But the Islamic State staged another assault earlier this month, seizing a large chunk of territory from the Kurdish peshmerga troops and forcing evacuation of the camps.
Many of those who fled ended up in Baharka — a makeshift facility on the outskirts of Erbil which is centered round an abandoned warehouse housing separate dwellings sectioned off with plastic sheeting. Outside, in the 115-degree heat, rows of tents stretch out in the dust.
Baharka was supposed to be a transit camp, providing emergency shelter to displaced Iraqis before they traveled to different provinces. However, it is now home to 2,500 people, manager Muhammed Bindian told VICE News, and the numbers are rising every day.
Bindian, who works with the Barzani Charity Foundation, added that its new residents include many of Iraq's most vulnerable minority groups, including Yazidi, Assyrians, Turkmen, Shabaks, and Kaka'i. A majority came from Khazir camp and left when the Islamic State advanced.
Jiyan, 20, told VICE News that she fled when news circulated of an assault by the Sunni militants, and even the camp security made a run for it. "The peshmerga were withdrawing quickly, so we ran too," she recalls.
The humanitarian crisis instigated by the Islamic State's advance into Yazidi areas of Iraq was the catalyst for international action, including US air strikes and international arms supplied to Kurdish forces.
There is a widely held belief in the camp among minority groups that the peshmerga could seize territory around Mosul tomorrow if they wished, but political leaders were refraining from having them do so in order to use displaced minorities as a bargaining chip for more munitions and support.
"I think it's all because of political interests," Sami Abdullah Ismael, a 44-year-old Shabak told VICE News. "We know the peshmerga are now well-equipped and could take it if they wanted to, especially with airstrikes… The only thing I want is to liberate our region so we can go to our homes."
A 63-year-old Shiite Arab, who arrived from Khazir on August 5 but declined to give his name, echoed this sentiment. "The story is not what happened, or how it happened, but how to recapture our territory and homes," he told VICE News. "We have have tents and water, but this is not life. We want the peshmerga to recapture our homes and countries in the international community who are our friends to help."
"It's all politics and tactics," another man interjected. "Because of tactics, our lives are being destroyed."
Baharka is run in cooperation with a number of international NGOs — including the World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR — as well as local authorities, which together provide each family with a standard care package of bedding, utensils, and the like, as well as a daily box of food essentials. Most residents were positive about their treatment here and from local residents. Some had even been picked up by civilians in vehicles and delivered to the camp.
However, there were also some grievances. Jiyan said she reached the camp at night with her family after leaving Khazir, but was denied entry when officials suspected she was an Erbil resident hoping to benefit from a cash handout. The authorities finally let her in the next day after she and her children slept in the street outside. Bindian said that is because all new arrivals must be investigated to avoid people taking advantage.
Others complained that each family received the same food supplies no matter how big it is. "There is a mismanagement of aid and a lack of organization," Daoud, 51-year-old Kaka'i, told VICE News. "Each family gets the same help whether they're three or 12." Bindian said he is aware of this issue and is working with WFP to try and provide a fairer allocation of food.
On occasion these tensions spilled over into arguments and violence. VICE News witnessed two families involved in a dispute over tent space, which camp managers called on peshmerga to break up. Other camp residents said a fight had recently broken out between groups of Shabak and Kaka'i while food was being distributed. Generally though, relations between each group seemed friendly.
Many of the camp residents said that they had tried to guard their villages against the Islamic State. One man, a 33-year-old Kaka'i who sat on part of a metal bed frame propped up on concrete blocks and covered in cardboard, told VICE News that along with family and friends, he had banded together with Shabak and Turkmen villagers to form a defense force in June and July, and planned to fight alongside the peshmerga.
However, he says, when the Islamic State attacked, the peshmerga retreated, leaving the local group with no chance of repelling them alone.
Now, he hopes that Iraqis will put their differences aside to defeat the Islamic State and that lawmakers will do the same in the newly formed government. "We need unity. We already have unity of people, but not of armed groups and politicians. If we can solve our disputes and unite, then we can capture back our country."