[A close point of view] Place of birth: A camp for internally displaced persons
I would like to devote this article to the issue which is rarely touched upon, which at the same time is a serious problem affecting thousands of children living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Recently I watched a fragment of a reportage in which a journalist asked a Yazidi boy several questions. The kid was around 5-6 years old. The man asked him, among others, if he had already been to Sinjar, namely the region where the boy’s parents fled from. He responded that he had not been there but he was aware of where he came from. The reporter then asked where the boy was born. He looked around and answered: here in the camp. That conversation pushed me to focus on this topic which I believe is very important.
How is it to be born in a camp? It is very difficult for me to imagine how it feels to identify with a place where all you can see on the horizon are tents spread over a vast plain. There is very little space here to play or to walk your own paths. Playgrounds are fiction. For example, there are two of them in Khanke near the camp’s gate for several thousand kids that live there. They can play at the outskirts, but that’s where sewage flaws from all over the camp. It must be very difficult to call such a place home.
How does a camp look like inside?
To describe how a camp for internally displaced persons looks like I will try to use the example I know best. But practically all camps look pretty much the same – at least their structures are similar. I visit Khanke every time I go to Iraq. That’s where the families of Khalaf and Shamoo live who always host us there. That’s also where the educational center OurBridge, which we have been supporting for four years, is located.
In 2014, the town became a safe haven for tens of thousands of people fleeing ISIS atrocities. After leaving Sinjar they went down the trail leading to Iraqi Kurdistan. At some point, eighty thousand people arrived in Khanke. Before the camp was built, they slept in makeshift shelters or literally on the street. For several weeks entire families were camping in the open air. Later some of them moved into the camp in Khanke, while others were transported to the nearby towns.
Each camp is fenced with a high fence. It looks a bit like a prison, and this impression is reinforced by a guard post with a soldier on guard at the main entrance gate. In Kabarto and Shariya, such “safety measure” was meant to keep the Yazidis and the Muslims residing in the same camp separate. The aim was to prevent potential conflicts and strife following the recent tragedy. Muslim neighbors were usually the first ones to attack the Yazidis in Sinjar. The situation was understandably very explosive as at the time everyone was full of grief and resentment after losing their daughters, sons, wives or mothers. Only the Yazidi elders managed to cool down the anger of the youth who listened to their instructions. This problem didn’t exist in Khanke where only the Yazidis lived. So what’s the use of the fence? I can’t answer this question.
The camp is divided into sectors. In each sector there are several hundred of tents set by the lanes creating a net of roads crossing perpendicularly. The building of the camp’s manager as well as the medical point, the school and toilets are situated near the entrance. There is also a little square which serves as a substitute for a playground for children. It’s around 500 square meters large, roughly the size of a football pitch. At the peak, more than 20,000 people lived in the Khanke camp, roughly one-third of them children, or an estimated 6-7 thousand.
Seven years have passed. What’s next?
Initially, this and other camps were meant to be a temporary shelter for people who were to go back home as soon as possible. Weeks, months and then years were passing while the situation was not changing much. Some people took their belongings and returned to Sinjar, where they found destroyed cities and villages, ruined schools, no electricity and problems with security. No longer than a week ago, the center of the Sinjar town was bombed by the Turkish air force. No one wrote about it. Nothing was said about earlier attacks aimed at units associated with the PKK either (PKK stands for the Kurdistan Workers Party which Turkey believes to be a terrorist organization with military bases in Sinjar, near the border with Turkey). Not even about the civilians killed in those air-strikes.
The Yazidis found themselves between a rock and a hard place. It is difficult for them to go back to their hometowns where a mountain of problems awaits them. It’s even worse to stay in refugee camps where a generation of children is being born who recognize these tents as their place of birth. After such a long time staying in the camps people are fed up. They do not want to keep their lives on hold any longer. They are trying to settle down, start families and create at least an illusion of normality. It is difficult to say what their future will be. Will they stay here forever and with time the camp will be turned into a town? Or maybe a day will come when the last family will set off on their way back home, their real home? Being an optimist by nature I am also a realist and I know that there is a scarce chance for the latter ending. For sure not everyone will leave as in many cases there are too many obstacles to overcome. Single mothers with children or the elderly and sick have a better chance to survive here. An easier access to school or medical help, or some level of security will be decisive for them.
But I feel most sorry for the children. These children for whom any mention of their hometown is a hazy image, or these that do not know the world outside the camp. For them, the camps, the presence of thousands of people around, the gate and the fence are their whole world. They can’t imagine that a different life is possible. The boy from the video footage which I referred to at the beginning said he was born in Khanke. He said he was from here, from the camp. For him this word has a different meaning – it is not a temporary shelter, a stopping place on the way back home. It is his home.
It’s like this over there
I’ve often heard the words: ‘It’s like this over there,’ or ‘There is always war in Iraq.’ Usually, in such a case I turn around and avoid continuing a discussion which from the outset is pointless to me. Maybe I shouldn’t do that, maybe there is a point in explaining all the complexities of that world? To be honest, I do not want to waste time on squabbles. I know that the readers of my articles are intelligent and open-minded people who want to broaden their knowledge. It is my honor. Here I guess I should add some words of encouragement and turn on the light of hope. Instead, I will bring a dose of hard-core realism. We will not change what has gone wrong. Two or three years ago we could still hope that at some point the camps would remain a distant memory of the entire Iraqi Yazidi community’s great tragedy. But it looks like not all of the camps’ residents will be able to go back home. Neither the Iraqi authorities, nor the UN, nor any other forces that supervise the region have enough willpower to make it happen. And Sinjar’s reconstruction is not the only issue at stake. First and foremost, the problem of the cauldron that has emerged in Sinjar would need to be solved. Currently, there are various fractions active in the region that have no intention to leave.
They include, among others, the Iraqi army and police, the Kurdish Peshmerga (the armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan), security forces, Shiite militia al-Hashd al-Shaabi, units associated with PKK which I have already mentioned, as well as several units created by the Yazidis. To this we need to add Turkey which hunts after its Kurdish opponents. So what we have in Sinjar is a real Gordian knot that nobody wants to cut. On top of that, the grim state of affairs in Afghanistan could spill over to Iraq, something that already happened before, at the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore, it will be very difficult to stabilize the situation which is currently very complicated. The worst is that the civilians, the ordinary people suffer the most and they are very tired of everything that is happening. The only thing we can do for them is to give them a breather. They are born and live to experience some happiness. So let’s forget about prophesizing and searching for long-term solutions. They are here and now. Sometimes I hear that the war will erupt again and destroy everything that we’ve done so far. But then I think: so what? We will rebuild it again. We will give these people yet another chance because we would like to get it too.
Author: Dawid Czyż