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Forever homeless? The forgotten Arabs of Sinjar

Driven from their villages to Mosul, then into refugee camps, hundreds lose hope of return
An Arab boy, originally from Sinjar and injured in Mosul, gazes through the camp fence (Tom Westcott/MEE)

Children cling to the wire fence enclosing one of West Mosul's sprawling tent cities, relieving the boredom of camp life by watching passing cars and shouting to a roadside vendor, pleading for free ice-creams. 

Behind them stretch rows of white tents housing families displaced by the Mosul conflict.

Among this camp's 27,300 residents are hundreds of Arabs originally from Sinjar, a mountain area of Iraq better known for its majority population of Yazidis, upon whom the Islamic State (IS) inflicted a religiously-motivated genocide. 

These Arabs from Sinjar say they were forced to flee their villages, already under IS control, when Kurdish forces started battling to retake the mountainous area in December 2014.

The Hamam Al-Aleel 2 camp for IDPs, where many displaced Arab families from Sinjar now live (Tom Westcott/MEE)
But they were forbidden by IS from leaving self-proclaimed caliphate territory - and so were sent as internally displaced persons (IDP) to Mosul.

There, they rented homes or lived in vacant properties and tried to scrape a living until Iraq’s offensive to retake Mosul uprooted them again.

Turfa Ahmed Hussein, 70, has been living in Hamam Al-Alil 2 Camp, 35km outside Mosul, for four months: before then he lived in Mosul under IS for three years.

“It is not right to leave us like this, in this terrible camp. We have lost our homes and all our things, twice," he said. "We have basically had no proper home since 2014."

Impossible to return

IS reached Sinjar mountain in early August 2014 as militants swept across Iraq, swiftly seizing control of almost one-third of the country.

Despite promises from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to protect the people of Sinjar, Kurdish peshmerga forces withdrew and the mountain residents were left to their fate.

IS militants' principle target were the Yazidis, who they decried as devil-worshippers for following an ancient faith. But Arab families from some 20 outlying villages scattered along the Syrian border say they also suffered under the group's brutal control. 

This woman says her daughter suffered a seizure from temperatures inside the tents (Tom Westcott/MEE)
Amina Bashir, 35, queuing beside the fence for her family’s daily ration of water, said: "IS burned my house and killed my husband, leaving me alone with four children. I have nothing left, nothing."

Returning to the land they call home is currently almost impossible for these displaced people. As of April 2017, the International Organization for Migration said that more than three million Iraqis had been internally displaced by violence - just under 10 percent of the total population.

Between those from Sinjar and the mountain stand notoriously tough peshmerga checkpoints which, they say, they are forbidden from crossing.

Ghanem Mohamed Ahmed, 38, said: "We are original Arabs from Sinjar and our families lived there for centuries, but we have not been allowed to return. When the peshmerga forces came to fight IS, they took more land and now they don’t want to give it back."

He also claims Kurdish forces demolished houses and even whole villages to prevent their original Arab communities from returning.

We are original Arabs from Sinjar and our families lived there for centuries but we have not been allowed to return

- Ghanem Mohamed Ahmed

"They destroyed all our homes with diggers and bulldozers so we would never come back. The UN knows about this, the international community knows about it, everyone knows about it, but still no-one does anything to help us," he said

Widespread demolition of Arab homes was noted in a 2016 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, research for which found "a pattern of apparently unlawful demolition of buildings and homes, and in many cases entire villages". 

The KRG claimed most property damage was caused by air strikes, fighting and de-mining operations. But officials admitted to HRW that the destruction of homes in some villages was "directly related to the fact that the properties belonged to individuals who had joined the terrorists of the Islamic State". 

Another Arab village was targeted, officials said, because it been an "epicentre of the IS groups' support base in the general Sinjar area as well as a recruitment hub for IS fighters and IS commanders".

The KRG also claimed its forces had been unable to stop other residents from destroying Arab homes whose owners had allegedly joined IS. 

Suspicion regarding IS affiliation has lingered over Sinjar's Sunni Arab villagers, but the people in the Hamam Al-Alil 2 camp strenuously deny this.

Sia Ali, 49, said: "IS treated all of us people from Sinjar very badly. They surrounded us for two months, and we had no food, nothing. We just hid inside our homes.

"Eventually Sinjar became so dangerous, with mortars and shooting all the time, we just wanted to leave and that's how we ended up in Mosul."

Despite knowing there is precious little left to return to, most of the displaced Sinjar families MEE spoke to say they long to return to their land, although their hopes are dwindling.

One man in his 40s said: "I don't really know how we can go back. We have no homes to return to, and no money or salaries to rebuild. But no-one has even come to talk to us about the possibility of going home. We feel forgotten."

An uncertain future

Official figures for Arabs displaced from Sinjar are hard to come by: international aid organisations register IDP only by governorate rather than district origin, in this case Nineva.

Ihe IDP themselves say they are among thousands of displaced Arabs from Sinjar.

Life under IS in Mosul was tough, especially during the last year when, during almost 10 months of fighting, there was no work and supplies began to run out. The paltry savings which most people survived on have long since been used up.

A camp resident sells ice creams on the road near the camp to try and support his family (Tom Westcott/MEE)
Ahmed has set up the small roadside cart selling ice-creams to passing motorists to try and make a few dinars. "When we first came to Mosul, we had some savings - only a little money, but enough to live for a while," he said, "but that ran out a long time ago."

A former policeman from Rabia, one of the larger Arab villages in Sinjar, he now dreams of returning to work. "I had to pretend I hadn’t been a policeman because IS would have cut my head off if they knew, and it was easier to hide the truth once we had left Rabia.

"Since the end of the war in Mosul, I've been trying to get my job back, and I'm just waiting to be called back to work but, to be honest, I think it's unlikely because of everything that's happened and because of our situation now. But still I'm trying."

Ahmed said he would happily return to work even amid the ruins of his village, saying experienced security officials would have an important role to play in the rebuilding and resettling of the ruined villages. 

I'd go back in one second if I could. Me and my family would happily live in a tent there. Anyway, we're living in a tent here with nothing, so what's the difference? 

- Ahmad, former policeman

"I'd go back in one second if I could. Me and my family would happily live in a tent there. Anyway, we're living in a tent here with nothing, so what's the difference? And even though everything is destroyed there, at least I have my land."

But, he said, he is certain that even seeing his land will remain a dream so long as the area continues to be under the control of the KRG, and until governing officials and peshmerga relax their stance towards Arab families.

"It's so green and beautiful, with a river," he said, his eyes welling with tears. "It's my homeland."

'It is like a prison'

Unable to return to their homes for the foreseeable future, the Arab displaced people of Sinjar have grown frustrated with, and critical of, the camps, complaining of food and water shortages. 

"We can't leave because we have nowhere left to go, so it is like a prison," said Hussein. "They gave us some things, like cooking equipment, when we arrived, but we have been told we cannot take anything from the camp if we leave, and have to give it all back. So, if I leave here, I leave with absolutely nothing."

One woman said promises that all IDP needs would be met by the international organisations running the camps were not met.

Sunni Arabs, she said, are being punished by Iraqi camp staff who believed they have supported IS. Meanwhile food and water supplies are insufficient and medical care amounts to nothing more than being given paracetamol. 

Nahla Mohamed said: "We've been in this camp for months and no-one comes to help. I have seven children, all girls, and no husband, and we have nothing."

She said her family have eaten only fried onions for breakfast for weeks because food boxes are routinely stripped of the most nutritious items. The whole family, she said, has suffered sickness because of their poor diet and the heat inside their tents.

"The problem with the food boxes is that they are delivered by the aid organisations during the day and then distributed late at night," said Mohamed, 35.

"At some point, maybe in the early evening, some people working here steal all the best items, like powdered milk, beans and oil, and we actually get very little."

IS took everything from me. They came to the house in Mosul and took my husband and killed him. I have no children, no home, no husband, no identity documents, just nothing. Now, I have only God

- Raffa Fellal

He said he had tried to speak to the camp manager but was given short shrift and feared his family would be "punished" if he pursued the matter.

"Please tell the international organisations to give out the food boxes directly to the people," Mohamed said. "They don't know what is happening here after they leave." 

The World Food Programme, responsible for delivering food aid to the camps, did not respond to MEE's request for comment. 

Camp staff patrolling the perimeter of the camp spoke into their radios, saying residents were talking to journalists, and started trying to send people back to their tents from the water queue. They did not engage with MEE.

"You see, they try to stop us from talking to the press or to anyone outside," Mohamed said, leading his young son away by the hand.

Clinging to the metal fencing, Raffa Fellal, 40, said: "Please ask the international organisations to help us return to our homes. 

"IS took everything from me. They came to the house in Mosul and took my husband and killed him. I have no children, no home, no husband, no identity documents, just nothing. Now, I have only God."

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