Today is aid distribution day in the Ashti refugee camp near Erbil. Christian families and Yazidis stand in line to receive rice, oil, tomato sauce, milk and chickpeas. For each, a box.
The camp is divided into two parts and is home to 6,000 people. Christians are from the Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, Yazidis from Sinjar and the nearby villages. They live in shipping containers, with outdoor bathrooms and gas stoves for cooking. Compared to camps for Syrians in Erbil and the extreme poverty of the displaced Iraqis in Kirkuk, Ashti is a showpiece: The Catholic Church has provided assistance and the money to afford them a minimally decent life. There are tents. There are schools, a clinic, some churches and small shops opened by evacuees to pocket some cash.
But among the narrow streets of the camp, the tension is palpable. Women and men smile, invite us to eat with them and offer hot falafel. But the prevailing feeling is of division, which is not only the present reality of Iraq but also its future.
The refugees are clear: We will not return to live with Muslims and Kurds, they say. Fierce sectarian divisions, dormant for decades, have exploded once again in the U.S.-imposed, post-Saddam era. Abuna Jalal Yako, an Iraqi priest now in charge of the camp, voices the sentiment. “When the first bomb rained on Qaraqosh,” he told il manifesto, “the peshmerga who defended the city knocked on our door telling us to run away. They abandoned the civilians. We fled without carrying anything. We were told that our Muslim neighbors have looted our homes.
“These families have lost everything, and they fear it will happen again,” he continued. “They no longer have trust: The Kurds profit from internally displaced persons, with stratospheric rents and by exploiting the workforce. Iraq is split. There is no longer an Iraqi identity. Now everyone feels unlike the others: Christian, Yazidi, Muslim, Kurd.”
Iraq is fragmented, and the pieces won’t easily go back together. Western policies have succeeded in destroying the mosaic of ethnicities and religions that Saddam held together.
Meanwhile, the world isn’t interested in diplomacy. The U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously adopted a resolution calling for unity against ISIS and authorizes member states to “take all necessary measures” to fight the Islamists in occupied territories. The resolution does not specify the measures or establish the legal basis for action. It simply calls “the Islamic State an unprecedented global threat to peace and security” and seeks an intensification of efforts to block financing of international terrorism.
In another corner, Russia continues to push for an alliance with the Assad regime. In Russia’s resolution from Sept. 30, and brought up again on Wednesday, Moscow demands the approval of a U.N.-backed international military campaign against ISIS — including joint military activities with the government in Damascus. The Security Council twice vetoed the resolution.
For now, Paris has the U.N.’s blessing to continue air raids in Syria. The bombs are incessant in Raqqa and in the rest of the country, where the Russian and Syrian air forces continue to strike. Yesterday in Deir ez-Zor, 36 people died in more than 70 Russians and Syrian raids, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “The worst bombing in the district since 2011” is hitting villages, towns and three oil fields. The bombardment is so intense, commercial flights to and from Lebanon were forced to alter course. Moscow has asked the Ministry of Transport in Beirut not to fly over a portion of airspace in eastern Syria until tomorrow.
It is not known whether civilians are among the 36 dead. But there were definitely four killed by a U.S. air strike on an ISIS checkpoint in Iraq last March. The Obama administration took eight months to publish the results of the investigation, in which the U.S. Army admits to killing the four civilians, including a child, but obviates legal action because “ISIS checkpoints are legitimate targets.” In short, there’s always collateral damage, the vast majority of which doesn’t deserve an investigation.
The White House has often boasted of the low number of civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq over the past year. Its targets are often hiding in deserts, places where ISIS commanders coordinate military and economic strategy. Yet there aren’t many casualties among the Islamists, either. Not even in Raqqa, where the French and Russians have been hunting for a week.
But civilians are dying. Yesterday, ISIS claimed responsibility for 10 dead in an attack Friday against a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, which was followed by another eight. Violence like this is daily life in the capital, and it adds fuel to the fire of sectarianism throughout the country. The Ashti camp seems far away, but the voices of the displaced indicate what the future may bring.
“People are destroyed, deprived of their dignity,” Abuna Jalal says. “They want to leave Iraq. This is no longer their land.”