Middle East

Flight from jihadists leads Iraqi Turkmens to Baghdad

In this Aug. 4, 2014, photo, an Iraqi boy looks in a camp displaced Iraqis who fled from their towns after advances by Islamic militants take shelter in Najaf, Iraq. (AP Photo/Jaber al-Helo)

BAGHDAD: School is out, but northern Baghdad’s classrooms are packed – not with students, but with people who have traveled further than most to escape the Sunni militant onslaught splitting Iraq.

While perils faced by members of the Yazidi minority fleeing ISIS militants have filled television screens for days, the fate of the Turkmens is less well known.

Iraq’s third-largest ethnic group after Arabs and Kurds, they include both Sunnis and Shiites and have a history of being targeted in previous conflicts.

Over the past two months, thousands of them have traveled hundreds of kilometers to the capital to escape the ISIS insurgents, crowding into schools run by volunteers and religious charities in the absence of government help.

“If you saw their situation when they came, the women and children, the dirt and mud, they were suffering,” said Saleem Sahi, a 48-year-old volunteer managing one school where he said children panicked when they saw helicopters flying overhead.

The long journey has separated families that sometimes spanned sectarian lines.

Almost all those who ended up in the northern Baghdad schools, near the sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City, are themselves Shiites.

Other Shiite Turkmens have been flown south by the government, which is led by politicians from the country’s overall Shiite majority, to spare them a perilous journey.

Ibrahim Hussein, 59, a Shiite government employee from the northern town of Tal Afar, said that while ISIS militants might have killed him for his faith, sect had had little impact on local relations before the insurgency.

He pointed to Mohammad Saeb, a 22-year-old Sunni sitting across the room whom he had taken into his home after a suicide bomber killed the young man’s family in 2009. “He’s become like my son,” he said.

Volunteers said aid agencies had offered some food and mattresses for the displaced, but those officials who had visited had done so only in a personal capacity, leaving communities and charities to find their own solutions.

A charity affiliated with Iraq’s top Shiite religious scholar, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, oversees one school and Sahi said food was provided largely by donors who would have given it to Shiite pilgrims in more peaceful years.

One 40-year-old Shiite woman from Mosul, northern Iraq’s largest city which was overrun by ISIS and allied Sunni militias in June, said she was forced to leave her Sunni husband behind when she fled.

Like others, the woman, who asked to be called Umm Abdullah, expressed a cautious hope Iraq’s new government might be able to do more to resolve the conflicts scattering them across the country than outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s had.

“We haven’t seen anything get better,” Umm Abdallah said, looking around the classroom stacked with gas canisters, sacks of flour and cooking oil.

One of the most pressing issues for the displaced is what to do when the school season starts in about a month. Volunteers say they have no idea what will happen. Everyone says the government should act, but no one expects it will.

Sahi said he may try to set up tents in a nearby area. A local official had suggested moving the refugees to a desert area, but Sahi said he was afraid this would isolate them from those providing support.

He was sober about the chance the government would provide any solutions soon, saying it would probably take at least a year before they were able to offer anything. “We’ve been going backward, it’s been getting worse,” he said as a television blared patriotic songs over images of men dancing in military fatigues. “The government still needs to be formed,” he said. “I think it will take a while.”

Sitting in a bare concrete room in one primary school, Hashem Abbas, a 58-year-old Turkmen repairman, said he fled his hometown of Tal Afar in the middle of the night two months ago after shelling by ISIS leveled neighboring homes.

Abbas and his large family made their way first across the mountainous north and eventually to Baghdad, where a contact said they would find shelter. They arrived with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

“Our future isn’t clear,” Abbas said as a fan rumbled to ease the baking midday heat. “We don’t know what will or won’t happen. We just ask that God returns us to our homes and our people.”

Those assisting them were not sure how that would happen.

“The government has passed away,” said Sadeq Sabah, a man volunteering to help oversee one of the schools, pressing his hands together as if in prayer. “There’s no one.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 18, 2014, on page 8.




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