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IS in Iraq: The human toll of the conflict

With more than two million people internally displaced in the last 12 months, some Iraqis say the situation is worse than ever
An Iraqi girl looks on outside a tent at a camp housing displaced families on 18 May 2015 in Bzeibez (AFP)

DOHUK, IraqOne year ago, Iraq's second city of Mosul fell to Islamic State militants in just a matter of days, with large swathes of Iraq following suit. More than two million people have been displaced by the fighting. Some have lost their homes, others their loved ones. Whole communities have been changed irreversibly by the fallout, and not just in places where IS now holds sway. The autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region has taken in many of those who fled and sent fighters south to try and repel the militants. 

To mark the anniversary of the fall of Mosul, Middle East Eye asked residents of Kurdish-Iraqi cities Erbil and Dohuk - including Kurds, displaced Iraqis, Syrian refugees - how the emergence of Islamic State has impacted their lives, and how they believe the conflict will play out in the years - and possibly decades - to come.

Mohammad Rashid, 31, Erbil Civil Defence

For three days after Mosul fell to ISIS, Muhammad Rashid and his Erbil-based civil defence team ferried Iraqis fleeing Mosul over the Great Zab river to the relative-safety of Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Now, over two million internally displaced people (IDPs) and Syrian refugees have sought sanctuary in the region. Mohammad believes the Kurdish regional government has a humanitarian obligation to help those fleeing the conflict, but that the influx of Iraqis who have historically been at odds with the Kurds [also] poses a threat to the homogeneity and stability of the region.

Photo credit: Mohammad Rashid (MEE / Andres DiCenzo)

“If the conflict with IS were like fighting between two brothers, or two families, we could find an solution easily. But the difficulty we have with IS is ideological. It’s important that the Kurdish civil defence adapts to the new threats that IS pose. I think it’s crucial, for instance, that all branches of the Kurdish police - including the traffic police and the civil defence - are trained in basic first aid, and bomb disposal as well as in how to work with the municipal ambulance services.”

“Will Baghdad fall? Maybe. Why not? IS have already shown that they can take Iraq’s provincial capitals, its strategic cities, Ramadi, Mosul, Tikrit. But if God helps us, if the Europeans and the Americans help us, then there is hope. But this war is a war between ideologies and I think it will continue, 20 years, maybe even 50 years.”

Mohammad, 26, Unemployed 

Muhammad's hometown of Tikrit in northern Iraq fell to IS on 11 June last year, the day after Mosul. He fled with his family fearing that the Iraqi government airstrikes on IS would fail to discriminate between civilians and the militants. 

Since the Iraqi army - supported by Shia militias and US-led anti-IS coalition airstrikes - recaptured Tikrit from IS in April, Mohammad, whose full name has been withheld to protect his family’s identity, has been waiting to return home. He is hopeful that his family will be allowed to return because his father is a colonel in the Iraqi police.

Photo credit: Mohammad (MEE / Andrea DiCenzo)

I graduated from the University of Tikrit in 2010 with a degree in economics and management. But even in Tikrit I couldn’t find work. The government weren’t hiring and there no jobs in the private sector. Both my brothers and I were unemployed. And what chance do I have of finding a job here?”

“I’m not doing anything here. Not a thing. There are too many people here, [IDPs] from Mosul, Tikrit, and it’s really hard to find a job. The Syrians arrived here before us, they found any jobs there were, even before we got here.”

“My father was a colonel in the Iraqi police in Tikrit, but we left as soon as IS came to Mosul. We knew that IS would kill anyone who used to work in the government. He hasn’t received any salary since the day we left one year ago.”

“I never thought I would be living in Kurdistan. I could never have imagined I would have to leave our house, leave our belongings, friends and family for another city. It’s difficult to leave your life behind. My hope is that, God willing, after Ramadan, after Eid, there will be a decision from the government to allow us to go home.”

Abdullah Ismael, 33, market vendor

A family portrait from 1989 is fading above shelves of Kurdish honey in Abdullah’s shop in the market below the Citadel in Erbil. In the 26 years since the photo was taken, Abdullah says that the last 12 months have been the most turbulent he has seen. Not even the first Gulf War, and former President Saddam Hussein's, repression of the Kurdish uprising that followed compare, he said. 

Since IS, Abdullah says he has witnessed the fast downturn in tourism to Iraqi-Kurdistan. Before the war, the region was popular among Iranians and Iraqis from southern cities who would spend their summers in the cooler, northern region. The market was bustling. Now his revenues are down 75 percent. Restaurant and hotels, says Abdullah, have suffered that same fate.

Photo credit: Abdullah Ismael (MEE / Andrea DiCenzo)

“The influx of refugees has caused a lot of problems for the Kurdish Regional Government and the economic situation in northern Iraq.”

“Prices have increased dramatically within the last year. You used to be able to rent a house for $400 a month, but since the refugees started to arrive this price has increased to $700. But it’s not only the price of rent, the price of everything has increased.”

“Because the central government froze the budget for Kurdistan, it’s a huge financial burden for the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government] to deal with the number of refugees in the area.”

“For decades, the Iraqi central government has failed the Kurds. The government in Baghdad always promises the KRG, ‘we’ll do this, we’ll that that.’ But they aren’t keeping their promises. We can’t trust the government in Baghdad anymore. In my opinion, the Kurds should declare complete independence from Iraq, we should be a separate state, especially because the future of Iraq is bleak. The situation is getting worse.”

Maha Sadi, unemployed primary school teacher

A crowd gathers around Maha as she describes how she fled Anbar with her parents and her sister last summer. But the atmosphere becomes heated as she lists the NGOs who photocopied her documents but, who she says, have failed to help her and her family. Some of the organisations she lists are Kurdish, and the locals who are hearing her testimony become frustrated by her description of local NGOs. Police arrive quickly, and disperse the crowd by flashing tasers.

Photo credit: (MEE /Maha Sadi)

“We left everything we owned in Anbar: our house, our cars, everything, and we’re paying a lot money for rent here. We can’t afford to live. We’re borrowing money every month to pay rent.”

“We came to Erbil because it’s safe. We just needed to go somewhere that was safe. Of course we want to go home, of course, but there is no security in Anbar. How can we go back? At least we feel safe in Erbil.”

Maha's story is shared by other displaced Iraqis. 

Rashid, not pictured, lived in the same house in Fallujah with her family for 24 years. She says that IS fighters took over their home after the family fled the city. Rashid, who came to Erbil with her two children, has lost all contact with her husband, who is still in southern Iraq. He was a high-ranking and respected government official before IS’ takeover of Fallujah.

“There are so many NGOs that ask for our documents to help us. We always copy our passports and contact information so they do something to improve our situation, but these organisations haven’t done anything for us.”

“At first it was hard to feel to at home here, but thank God, we are becoming acquainted with our situation. At first, the local Kurdish people were afraid to speak to us and to talk to us, because we’re Arabs.”

“The problem is that it's very expensive here. Even though we’re living in one house with five other families, we’ve started to sell our jewellery and gold just to be able to pay for the basics like electricity, water, rent.”

Nawzad, 54, barber

Until a car bomb rocked Police Station Street in the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Ankawa in Erbil in April of this year, Iraqi-Kurdistan’s provincial capital had avoided the thrust of the region’s unrest. The bomb targeted the United States consulate killing two and injuring dozens more. The street is heavily guarded now by Peshmerga who set up roadblocks and pedestrianised the street.

Nawzed has lived his entire life in Erbil and has noticed how, in the last year, residents of the Kurdish regional capital are increasingly concerned about the threat of rising violence. He and his customers, though, are confident that IS will not be able to broach Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Rashid (MEE / Andrea DiCenzo)

“Business has been steady in the last year. People are always going to need to have their hair cut and their faces shaved. But in general, the economic situation here has deteriorated - I’ve had to double prices - and the city is increasingly concerned about safety and security.”

“I do feel safe in Erbil and I’m not inclined to leave, because I don’t think IS will be able to push past the Peshmerga - I have complete confidence the peshmerga will hold the frontline. That said, the atmosphere in Erbil has changed since the bombing at the US consulate.”

“You see, we’re not in Baghdad. We’re not used to having car bombs everyday. It’s not normal for us here. People were definitely unsettled that this happened.”

“For now, I have confidence for the future of my family and my children. But I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We are praying for stability. But it’s hard to stay hopeful because everyday is worse than the last.”

Nada Seedo, 16

Nada’s family, Yezidis from Sinjar, fled their home early in the morning of 3 August, 2014 after a neighbour knocked on their door to warn them that IS were closing in on the region. They fled on foot to Khanke, a village outside Dohuk, where family friends have been sheltering them ever since. Nada, who speaks Arabic and broken English, has not been able to attend school in Dohuk because she doesn’t speak the local Kurdish dialect.

Photo credit: Nada Seedo (MEE / Andrea DiCenzo)

“We don’t have a normal life here. We had a system, a routine, a way of life in Sinjar. We lost all that when we came to Khanke. Our life was good there. It’s not like it is here. I hate that we had to leave.”

“I’m not going to school and I don’t even want to go to school here because I can’t go with my friends. I don’t want to go without them. Some of my friends from home are in Dohuk, some are in Turkey and Erbil - they also haven’t been to school this year. I haven’t made new friends since I came here and I don’t want new friends.”

“I don’t think Kurdistan has been very welcoming to us. They don’t love us. They don’t love the Yezidis.”