The Makhmour refugee camp is under siege. After four years of an unbearable embargo imposed by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, it is now the Iraqi central government that is threatening the 13,000 Kurdish refugees who have been living there since the 1990s, finding refuge after fleeing from Turkey.
The siege began on Saturday. Immediately afterwards, social media was filled with videos testifying to this act of force by Baghdad’s special units, accompanied by armored vehicles and bulldozers. It was a military action against a civilian population with the stated goal of closing down the entire perimeter of the camp with barbed wire and military guard posts.
The attempt to begin these works and enter Makhmour took the entire day on Saturday, but was stopped by the community, which stood in the way of the Iraqi army with their own bodies. Some threw stones, to which the Iraqi military responded by opening fire: two young men were injured, according to a statement by the KNK (Kurdistan National Congress), one of them seriously wounded.
Then the community organized a sit-in that is still ongoing: refugees have set up tents at the entrances of the camp and remain there in order to prevent the protesters from being cleared out and the soldiers from entering. Women, children, young and old are singing and dancing in front of the soldiers’ shields, even in the face of scenes of violence and trucks chasing down fleeing protesters.
As night fell on Saturday evening, the army moved some distance away but did not abandon the area. They remain there, encircling Makhmour with their entire arsenal of bulldozers, construction machinery and armored vehicles. Nobody has been able to come in or out of the area since Saturday: no one is allowed to leave the camp, neither workers going to their jobs nor ambulances to transport the sick and injured.
“The plan to clear out Makhmour is at least a decade old,” Tiziano from Uiki, the Kurdistan Information Office in Italy, tells us. “The camp is under UNHCR protection, so taking military action is not so easy. Nevertheless, the Turkish air force bombs it frequently, and since 2019 the KRG has imposed an embargo. What has changed this time? Before, Turkey would issue the order and the KDP (the party that governs the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, n.ed.) would execute, but this time it’s the Iraqi government that is taking action. It’s no longer individual members of the government, but the executive as a whole.”
The scenes were similar to those seen in April 2022 in Shengal, the northwestern Iraqi region that had been administered autonomously by the Yazidi community for years: back then, the Iraqi army – or at least some units closer to the Mosul governorate and the Turkish government – attempted a show of force to dismantle the Yazidi self-defense forces and regain control of the territory.
“The policy is the same,” Tiziano continues. “Makhmour and Shengal need to be emptied out or at least rendered harmless. The ultimate goal is the eviction and dispersal of the thousands of people living there. Unable to accomplish this directly, either because the camp is run by UNHCR, as in the case of Makhmour, or because it would mean attacking a population that survived the ISIS genocide, as in the case of Shengal, they instead create open-air prisons. They isolate people to make life unbearable and force those who live there to leave on their own.”
At work is a long-term strategy against diverse forms of autonomous administrations, particularly those inspired by the ideas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Since the 1990s, Makhmour has been the first successful attempt at democratic confederalism, the same paradigm shared by other democratic grassroots communities that became known to the world with the Rojava revolution in northern and eastern Syria. Shengal has followed the same principles: after liberation from Islamist occupation, it now features a system of democratic autonomy that draws upon democratic confederalism.
Both Makhmour and Shengal are rebellious areas that do not intend to give in to the central government in Baghdad or the KDP, which ran away back in 2014 and was thus responsible for the worst massacre carried out by the Islamic State on Iraqi soil.
On Monday, on the third day of the siege, the co-chairman of the Makhmour People’s Democratic Assembly, Yusif Kara, spoke out, appealing to Baghdad to withdraw its troops and engage in dialogue: “We do not accept this blockade in any way. We have been in exile for 30 years. They cannot impose it on us. We want to live with dignity. We fled persecution by a fascist enemy and became refugees on Iraqi soil. After 30 years of persecution, the residents of Makhmour will not accept isolation and the forced imposition of an open-air prison.”
The call for dialogue was also reiterated by the KNK, which rejected the claims coming from Ankara, stressing that this aggression is being perpetrated against a civilian population under UN protection, not against “a terrorist hideout or military camp.”
Editor’s note: As of Tuesday, the siege and protests continued.