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IRIN - Syria


How a fingerprint can change an asylum seeker’s life

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 12:48:15 +0000

When Anas Obeid was deported from Germany and landed at Milan’s Malpensa airport, the wound in his leg was still bleeding.   German police had woken him up at 4 that morning, 22 September, in the refugee accommodation centre where he was staying in the northern Bavarian town of Bamberg. They put him in the back of a van with metal grates in the windows, and drove him two hours to the airport in Munich.   The blood had soaked through his trousers during the ride, as German police discovered during a pre-flight security check. They called the airport doctor who insisted Anas was not fit for travel and should instead be in a hospital.   “Let him get treatment in Italy,” Anas remembers the officer overseeing his deportation saying before they put him on the plane.   Anas, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, had not committed a crime so much as run afoul of a regulation he did not even know existed before arriving in Europe in December 2015. Under a European Union law known as the Dublin Regulation, he should have applied for asylum in the first country he arrived and was registered in. But Anas had waited to request refuge, and now he was being sent back to Italy, where he had landed after being rescued from an over-packed, wooden fishing boat off the coast of Libya along with 500 other people and taken to the island of Lampedusa.   Already injured from his time in Syria, instead of being taken to a hospital when he disembarked in 2015, Anas was taken for interrogation. The Italian police inspector questioning him wanted to know where he had come from and who he had met and interacted with from the time he left Syria until he reached Italy.   “I gave them everything; all the names I remembered, telephone numbers. Everything. They told me, ‘You’re a terrorist’,” said Anas. “I told them that I wasn’t, and they told me to give them my fingerprint to make sure. This fingerprint ruined my life.”   “Dublined”   Since 2014, more than 600,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. Many – like Anas – have fled wars and brutal dictatorships, but even those who make the crossing out of economic desperation often claim asylum once reaching Europe – even if many of their claims will ultimately be rejected.   The EU asylum process is governed by the Dublin Regulation, which requires people to apply for protection in the first country they enter. But many don’t want to remain in Italy or other southern European countries, such as Greece, where most asylum seekers arrive.   Social support systems in these countries are weak compared to northern Europe and there are high levels of unemployment even among citizens. New arrivals also often have connections elsewhere – family and friends who came before them – that encourage them to move on.   But once someone is registered as having arrived in one country, and their fingerprint is taken, they cannot apply for asylum anywhere else – barring a few exceptions. Their fingerprint is entered into a database that is searchable by police throughout the EU.   If they apply for asylum in another country, their fingerprint will come up, their claim doesn’t have to be considered and they can face deportation back to the country where they were first registered. Those who are sent back are referred to as having been “Dublined”.   As political attitudes in Europe have shifted against asylum seekers and refugees, the number of deportation requests under Dublin has skyrocketed – particularly to Italy. People are separated from friends and sometimes family in communities where they have started to build new lives.   Back in Italy, they face a cold reception. Even vulnerable cases – like Anas – are often left without support in a country where they never intended to stay.  Eric Reidy/IRIN Anas, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee Forced from Syria   Anas’ journey to Europe began in 2014 on a staircase outside of his family’s home in eastern Ghouta, an oppos[...]

Russia has finished off the UN’s Syria chemical attack probe. What now?

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 14:01:06 +0000

 Russia recently used a series of Security Council vetoes – the final one last week – to kill an international body investigating a gruesome series of chemical attacks in Syria.   The move came not long after the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), a body launched in 2015 by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), accused President Bashar al-Assad’s Moscow-backed government of using sarin, a banned nerve gas, in an April attack that reportedly killed dozens in the city of Khan Sheikhoun.   Russia’s actions have enraged al-Assad’s Western critics, who accuse the Syrian leader of secretly stockpiling chemical weapons in contravention of UN resolutions, and who now want to deliver accountability by other means.   But that will be no easy task. Opposition sources already report that civilians were exposed to chemicals in the last few days in besieged eastern Ghouta. If another major chemical attack were to take place in the absence of a broadly accepted investigatory mechanism, more than one foreign actor may be tempted to take unilateral action.   How did we get here? The now-defunct JIM is just the latest incarnation of protracted and tortuous efforts to probe the use of banned weapons in Syria since the war there began in 2011.   In 2013, a US-Russia agreement allowed the OPCW, the 192-nation implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to verify Syria’s compliance with that treaty, including a promise by al-Assad to surrender all chemical weapons.   But investigators never really trusted al-Assad to live up to his side of the deal, and various other probes (see the timeline below for details) have been unable to assign blame for chemical attacks, until an August 2015 unanimous Security Council resolution created the JIM to do just that. However, when the JIM concluded that the Syrian government had indeed used chlorine gas on three occasions, a Russian and Chinese veto prevented the Security Council from acting.   The latest crisis was set off after the widely publicised sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017. The US blamed al-Assad’s government for releasing the nerve agent and responded, without waiting for a JIM verdict, with a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base. As it had with previous incidents, Damascus dismissed Khan Sheikhoun as a false flag attack. Russia and Iran also insisted that al-Assad was innocent, though they couldn’t agree on a single narrative of what had actually happened.   In June, an OPCW fact-finding mission report determined that the nerve agent sarin had indeed been used in Khan Sheikhoun, and in October, the JIM concluded that it had been released by a Syrian government jet. Cia Pak/UN Photo JIM head Edmond Mulet briefs the Security Council   Its investigations had “found nothing to prove that the incident had been staged. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing,” JIM head Edmond Mulet, a Guatemalan diplomat, told the Security Council in response to Russia’s criticisms.     The Russians would have none of it. With the JIM’s mandate up for renewal before 17 November, Moscow threatened to block continued investigations unless the rest of the Security Council agreed to reject the JIM’s Khan Sheikhoun probe and reorganise the mechanism to focus on non-state actors.   Moscow then repeatedly used its veto to block mandate extensions on 24 October, 16 November, and 17 November. Russia’s actions were harshly criticised, and in the final vote, only Bolivia could still bring itself to vote with Russia, while China abstained. Even Moscow-friendly Kazakhstan voted with the pro-extension camp.   It had taken three Russian vetoes, but the UN’s chemical weapons investigation was finally dead.   Can the JIM be replaced?   There are apparently still efforts underway to resurrect the JIM, but, for the time being, the Security Council no longer stands behind any investigation into chemical attacks in Syria,[...]

Congo, chemical weapons, and sex work in crisis settings: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 27 Oct 2017 16:13:12 +0000

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:   The worst kind of club   The Democratic Republic of Congo has joined a club no country wants to join: It has been named a "Level 3" emergency by the international relief community. The "L3" designation is meant to galvanise a more ambitious and urgent response from the UN, NGOs, and donors. An OCHA spokesperson confirmed the decision to IRIN, saying the measure will last for an initial six months and is focused on the situation in the greater Kasai region, as well as Tanganyika and South Kivu, where conflict and displacement have soared this year. OCHA says only 30 percent of this year's humanitarian appeal was funded – a 10-year low. Informed sources say a new UN humanitarian coordinator, Canadian Kim Bolduc, will be deployed. Decisions to declare an L3 come from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which includes the major UN agencies and international NGO groups. Congo is the fourth current L3 response. The others are for operations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Previous L3s have at one time been declared for Central African Republic, the Philippines and South Sudan.    How to negotiate with armed groups   Staying in similar territory, what do members of armed groups really think of humanitarian workers? It’s an important question when it comes to safety and operational effectiveness, so the International NGO Safety Organisation asked groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They concluded that the gunmen generally wanted to appear respectful of International Humanitarian Law. But while the presence of aid workers was generally welcomed, there were some sharp criticisms of the humanitarian response. These were based on the supposed incompetence of the NGOs, a perception of skewed recruitment practices, corruption, and the failure to consult with local people leading to poor programming. There was also suspicion of “political behaviour” by some NGOs, including spying. Recommendations by INSO based on the study included: keep talking to the armed groups; keep that messaging consistent; avoid establishing too-personal links that could be misconstrued as bias; don’t ignore the rank-and-file; and be transparent by managing breeches of humanitarian and operational principles rather than ignoring them. The study was conducted in 2014, but only released this week.   Last act for UN chemical weapons probe?   The results are in: A UN investigative panel announced Thursday that the Syrian government’s air force was responsible for an April sarin gas attack that killed dozens in the village of Khan Sheikhoun. This should not come as a surprise – evidence, including a declassified US intelligence report, pointed in that direction early on, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the whole thing a “fabrication” and Russia said it was caused by a bomb on the ground. The US responded with a cruise missile strike on a Syrian military base, in what appeared to be a return of the chemical weapons “red line”. But this investigation may be the last for the panel (full name: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism), at least in its current form. Just days before the results were announced, Russia, saying it was waiting to see the panel’s Khan Sheikhoun findings, used its Security Council veto to stop a one-year extension of the body’s mandate. The council has until 17 November to renew the JIM, and Russia’s ambassador to the UN has said: “we will return to [the issue].” What that means for independent investigations of a conflict rife with wrongdoing remains to be seen.   No “end to radicalisation”   After five months of fierce clashes demolished parts of the city and raised questions over a new breed of Islamist insurgency, officials in the Philippines this week declared an end to fightin[...]

Winter is coming: Who will rebuild Raqqa?

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 08:38:49 +0000

After years of fighting, the so-called Islamic State has finally been driven out of Raqqa, its main stronghold in Syria. This is a major victory for those fighting the group, but Raqqa is now a ghost town, strewn with rubble and unexploded bombs. As winter approaches, the city’s new rulers are in a race against time to make it habitable once again. Central Raqqa’s Naeem roundabout has become emblematic of IS rule: The group’s gory propaganda films delighted in showing black banners fluttering over crucified bodies and severed heads at the traffic circle.   That’s all over now. Today, the roundabout is draped in the yellow flags of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting to destroy IS, aided by the United States and dozens of other countries.   For the SDF and its allies, taking Raqqa was a harbinger of victory and cause for great celebration. But in the process of eliminating IS, Naeem roundabout and everything around it was reduced to rubble.   “One hundred and thirty-five days of clashes created huge destruction in the city,” SDF media official Perwar Mohammed Ali told IRIN by phone from Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, describing a wasteland of collapsing buildings strewn with land mines and unexploded bombs.   “As of now, we cannot tell civilians to come back to Raqqa, because it’s dangerous.”   A city without people   Since the SDF offensive began in June, the US-led coalition has reportedly dropped some 20,000 munitions on Raqqa. According to the monitoring group Airwars, in August alone the city was pummelled with 10 times more bombs than all of Afghanistan over the same period.   Airwars counts US bombing as responsible for most of the 1,800 civilian deaths it recorded during the Raqqa offensive, although the coalition disputes these numbers.   Echoing SDF estimates, a UN official told IRIN that at least four fifths of Raqqa city is now uninhabitable, partly because of material destruction, but also due to unexploded ordnance and a lack of electricity and water.   The UN says more than 312,000 people have fled Raqqa province as a whole, and many of the city’s former inhabitants are now stuck in camps in the barren, SDF-controlled countryside north of the city. Conditions there are “miserable”, according to Save the Children, which warns that many of the displaced could be trapped in makeshift camps for “months or years to come”. Andrea DiCenzo/IRIN Syrians displaced from the fight against IS in Ain Issa camp, north of Raqqa That’s why aid workers insist there’s no time to lose in creating the conditions for a safe return to Raqqa.   “The camps are overcrowded and we need to be thinking about that now,” Christy Delafield, spokeswoman for Mercy Corps – an aid group that was shut down by the government in Turkey but still has some operations on the ground in Syria – told IRIN. “The timeframe that we’re really looking at is weather. At this particular moment, everybody is keeping an eye on the approaching winter, and nobody wants to spend this winter under a tent.”   In the meantime, the UN is already distributing “winterisation kits” across Syria – these include insulation, floor mats, waterproofing, and a heater for tents.   Bombs under the rubble   The security situation in Raqqa is extremely precarious. SDF sources told IRIN that IS fighters are still thought to be hiding inside the city, claiming to have caught one as recently as Friday.   Apart from flushing out the last few IS snipers, the SDF’s to-do list is topped by the need to clear out landmines and unexploded US bombs – or at least figure out where they are. Landmines have already killed members of least nine families that have tried to return to Raqqa, coalition sources say.   “IS had years of time to prepare and place booby traps in buildings,” Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, told IRIN. [...]

Afghan attacks, Raqqa redux, and plague in Madagascar: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 20 Oct 2017 16:45:57 +0000

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:   AU and EU: new BFFs?   African and European leaders are scheduled to meet in a summit in November at a time when relations have reached a turning point, the International Crisis Group says in a report released this week. The African Union has launched potentially transformative reforms that will shake up its peacekeeping operations and should increase its financial self-sufficiency. Because of Brexit, the EU is losing one of its most influential and internationally engaged members – with implications for Africa. One component critical to reshaping AU-EU relations is the Cotonou Agreement, a partnership between the EU and 79 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific that expires in 2020 and will be renegotiated over the next two years. It’s unclear what shape the post-Cotonou settlement will take, and the future of the linked European Development Fund is equally uncertain. The AU’s reform of its peace and security architecture also has consequences for the EU – its chief funder. There are many points of friction: For the AU, the EU’s “paternalism” grates, while Brussels worries that it’s perceived as a “cash machine” – not to mention serious divergences over the migration issue. But there are deep-shared strategic interests. Both sides “must confront key areas of disagreement and frustration,” says the ICG. “In this context, the AU-EU summit comes at a particularly opportune moment.”   Biggest plague outbreak since 2008 (probably)   In Madagascar, 94 people have died in the worst outbreak of plague since 2008. Since 1 August, there have been 1,153 suspected cases, according to the WHO. This outbreak is nearly three times bigger than the typical seasonal outbreaks the island has every year, and it's reached the capital city, Antananarivo. Also bad: The pneumonic variant that can spread directly from human to human is responsible for two thirds of the cases. Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Ibrahima Soce Fall, the WHO’s emergency director for Africa, said the outbreak could be contained quickly and that all strains tested so far are treatable with standard antibiotics. The likelihood of international spread is minimal, he argued. However, the WHO's own literature admits the pneumonic form can produce "terrifying" outbreaks. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has appealed for 5.5 million Swiss francs to support its work on the outbreak, which “involves illness, fear, stigma and discrimination”. Justifying the hefty investment, IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy said: “we are adopting a ‘no regrets’ approach to this response”. In recent years, Madagascar has reported three quarters of the cases of human plague worldwide – a sign, according to a study, of the "deteriorating fabric” of the country’s health system. However, not all cases are reported to the WHO: Weak surveillance in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, another endemic country (it reported 1,962 cases in 2008), may hide continuing outbreaks there.    New lows in Afghanistan   It has been a deadly week in Afghanistan: Multiple attacks claimed by the Taliban have killed at least 100 people and injured hundreds more. Taliban militants targeted an Afghan Army base in Kandahar Province, killing 43 soldiers — the majority of the troops stationed there, according to media reports. Separate attacks in Paktya and Ghazni provinces killed at least 60 and injured at least another 200, according to the UN mission. These attacks are just the latest signs of Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation. More than 8,000 civilians have been killed or injured in conflict through the first nine months of this year – a figure that has Afghanistan on a path to near record[...]

Turkey intervenes in Syria: What you need to know

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 18:21:50 +0000

After months of speculation, Turkey has launched an intervention – with the help of rebels it supports – in northwestern Syria. But what exactly is Turkey hoping to do, and how will the jihadis who control the province react, not to mention the civilians who have taken shelter there?   Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to step into Idlib follows a mid-September agreement with Russia and Iran, as part of the Astana peace process, to turn Idlib into a “de-escalation zone”, instituting a renewable six-month ceasefire policed by Turkish, Russian, and Iranian military observers.   According to the deal reached in the latest Astana meeting, Russian and Iranian troops will deploy in regions controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey will be responsible for the interior of the enclave, reportedly by eventually deploying around 500 monitors across the region.   Turkey has barely begun to put its own boots on the ground in its bid to enforce the agreement, which notably did not include the main rebel group in Idlib: the al-Qaeda offshoot Tahrir al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front. Instead, it is massing tanks on the border with Syria and throwing its weight behind non-jihadi factions, collectively known as the Free Syrian Army.   Even as the deal comes into force, the Astana nations view Syria very differently – Russia and Iran support al-Assad, while Turkey backs rebels fighting his regime. But they each have something to gain from a long-term ceasefire in Idlib, even if that quiet is first brought about by violence.   What do the Astana nations want?   For Turkey, the Astana process represents a least-bad option. Russia’s September 2015 entrance into the long Syrian war on the side of al-Assad changed the rules of the game. It became clear to Erdogan that the Syrian president would remain in power, at least in some fashion, and Turkey would now have to strike deals with Russia to protect its interests.   Those interests will sound familiar to anyone who has been following events in neighbouring northern Iraq. “Turkey's priorities in Syria are – as they always have been – to prevent a Kurdish corridor and Kurdish self-rule next to its borders,” the Turkish Middle East expert and journalist Cengiz Çandar told IRIN last month.   The desire to keep Kurdish fighters away from its border, combined with American military support for the same Kurdish groups fighting so-called Islamic State in Syria, made it expedient for Turkey to draw closer to Russia and Iran, Çandar explained.   Astana, with its deal to transform Idlib into a de-escalation zone, marked a major shift in Turkey’s Syria policy. It is, as Çandar puts it, “the last link in the chain in which Turkey placed itself more under the Russian umbrella.” Andrea DiCenzo/IRIN Turkey wants to keep Kurdish troops in Syria far from its border   Erdogan-friendly Turkish media ties the expected Idlib intervention to the Kurdish-controlled Afrin region just north of Idlib, suggesting that Ankara’s long-term plan is to trade services with Moscow and Damascus: We pacify Idlib, you let us deal with the Kurds.   What Russia and Iran are hoping to achieve is less obvious, but by drawing Turkey into talks over issues other than regime change at Astana, they have reduced pressure on the Syrian government and allowed al-Assad to refocus his military attention on eastern Syria, where his troops recently broke a long siege by the so-called Islamic State on Deir Ezzor.   A Turkish intervention could also drive a wedge between Syria’s rebels, some of whom are firmly in Erdogan’s camp while others view Turkey’s emerging pact with Russia with great suspicion. And for Moscow, making a NATO member state like Turkey dependent on Russian goodwill has only upsides.   For its part, al-Assad’s government se[...]

Iraqi Kurdistan has voted for independence. What now?

Wed, 27 Sep 2017 15:10:44 +0000

On 25 September, millions of Iraqi Kurds voted in a controversial referendum for independence from Iraq. Organised by Kurdish Regional Government president Masoud Barzani, it was a non-binding vote and a show of power rather than an actual declaration of statehood, but it has nevertheless rattled both Iraq and its neighbours. The international community had put pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders to stop the vote and even some otherwise pro-independence Kurds were wary of the idea, which they viewed as a ploy to buttress Barzani’s power, but the president successfully pressed his case. Summoning a series of huge flag-waving rallies, Barzani insisted the Kurds had to throw down the gauntlet while there was still time, because with the war on the so-called Islamic State winding down, their margin for manoeuvre would surely decrease. Many found his reasoning persuasive, and others simply longed to put their name down for independence as a way to fulfil old dreams and stick it to old oppressors. Pitted against Iraqi Kurdistan’s stubborn, refractory brand of nationalism, the heavy-handed threats from Baghdad and regional capitals backfired completely. Barzani was hoisted on a wave of popular enthusiasm, and by referendum day the result was a foregone conclusion. “You, the people of Kurdistan, you did not allow your will to be broken, and now, after your yes-vote that was a yes for independence and no to Anfal, chemical attacks, and another genocide, we have entered a new stage,” Barzani said after the referendum, confidently declaring a victory while votes were still being counted. “Anfal” refers to an Iraqi army campaign in the late 1980s that involved genocidal mass killings of Kurds. Indeed, that’s the lens through which many (but not all) Iraqi Kurds seem to view Iraq: as an alien, hostile entity that will at best fail to function and at worst send death squads to their cities. They want out. Fears of secession Iraqi Arabs have a very different take on what just happened. Virtually every political party in Baghdad has condemned the vote as an unconstitutional secessionist act, accusing Kurdish leaders of abusing Arabs and minorities, and of trying to steal a northern oil wealth that rightfully belongs to all Iraqis. And for a nation whose problem is division – Kurdish lands are scattered across Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq – Kurdistan has a curious talent for uniting foes abroad and at home. Nearly every government in the neighbourhood, and far beyond, has lined up to condemn Kurdish separatism. Iraq, Turkey, and Iran are leading the charge, but support for Iraq’s territorial integrity has also been voiced by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Russia, and others; even Bashar al-Assad’s civil-war Syria has chimed in with condemnations of the referendum. The United States pronounced itself “deeply disappointed”, but said it would take no action to downgrade American-Kurdish relations. Both before and after the vote, Kurdish authorities have tried to limit the international and Iraqi fallout by stressing its advisory nature and stating that further moves toward independence could require years of negotiations with Baghdad. “Kurdish leaders have played their cards skilfully,” Omar Sheikhmus, one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party and now a respected independent voice in Kurdish politics, tells IRIN. He insists that Iraqi Kurdish leaders “have said all along that this will not mean independence the next day. We are willing to negotiate and we want a peaceful separation, a process that could take a few years.” “They have conveyed the same message to the United Nations and to the United States, saying that it won’t affect our cooperation with Iraqi forces in the battle against the Islamic State.” Ripple effects outside Iraq It is unli[...]

Vote violence in flashpoint city signals long road to Iraqi Kurdistan

Tue, 26 Sep 2017 06:58:26 +0000

As residents on the Sunni Muslim side of Tuz Khurmatu cast their ballots on the question of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday, dozens of locals gathered opposite, armed with machine guns, RPG launchers, and pistols, preparing to fight against the city’s Shia population. Half an hour earlier, a minibus carrying Kurdish peshmerga soldiers came under fire from the other side of the small city, almost exclusively populated by Shia Turkmen. The driver – a civilian and ironically a Shia himself – was killed instantly and one of his peshmerga passengers shot in the leg. Referendum day here was drastically different than in some parts of northern Iraq, where Kurdish nationalism ran high and voting was marked by cheerful optimism and flag-waving. This troubled city, where a wall divides residents by their adherence to Sunni or Shia Islam, may be the exception rather than the rule on this historic day for Iraqi Kurds, but it hints at the challenges that lie ahead, particularly in border areas claimed by both Kurdistan and Iraq. It also remains to be seen how Monday’s referendum will impact growing regional and international tensions. The vote was opposed by Iraq’s central government, neighbours of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), including Turkey and Iran, as well as by the United Nations, the United States and Britain. Voting had barely ended before the federal government in Baghdad had urged the international community to boycott crude oil exports from the KRG, and Turkey had declared the vote “null and void”. Violence had been expected in Tuz Khurmatu in Salah al-Din province, one of the most volatile areas in a fault line of disputed territories. Frequent clashes between opposing sides have become so dangerous that, for over a year, a wall has separated the two. Residents told IRIN that many locals from both sides fled ahead of Monday’s vote, fearing the bloodshed that inevitably came. A city divided Tuz Khurmatu’s residents – a mixture of Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shia Turkmen – lived in relative harmony for decades. But the emergence of the so-called Islamic State, which at one point held territory just two kilometres from Tuz Khurmatu, enhanced religious divisions. Fearing the threat of IS, the city’s Shia Turkmen affiliated with Iraq’s predominantly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi forces. Known in English as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), these groups welcomed Iraqi volunteers of any faith or ethnicity willing to take on IS. The Kurdish and Arab Sunnis of Tuz Khurmatu, meanwhile, looked to the KRG’s peshmerga fighters for support.  Iraq’s battle against IS enabled the KRG to considerably expand its reach into disputed areas but local journalist Hunar Ahmed told IRIN that when PMU forces arrived in the area to fight IS, they also took control of territory nearby, adding: “Then they never left.” “There were no such problems here before but, after they destroyed Daesh (IS), the Hashd and the peshmerga started fighting each other,” he said. Growing violence led the local branch of Jalal Talibani’s Kurdish PUK party, which holds sway here, to authorise the construction of the wall a year ago, separating the town’s Shia Turkmen, who account for around 60 percent of the city’s population, from local Sunni Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. Tom Westcott/IRIN On the Kurdish side of the Tuz Khurmatu wall, graffiti reads "yes to the referendum" Tom Westcott/IRIN The Turkmen side of the same wall is scarred with bullet holes Parts of the city had already been divided since 2010 by barriers erected to reduce attacks by al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, according to Tuz Khurmatu Governor Shalal Abdul, himself a Kurd. The governor told IRIN that t[...]

The uncertain future of the Kurdish people

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 13:15:51 +0000

As Iraq’s Kurds gear up to vote in a pivotal independence referendum, this IRIN in-depth series explores the Kurdish people - past, present, and future: What binds them together? What still separates them? What does the prospect of a nation state mean for ordinary people and what risks does this bubbling undercurrent of nationalism pose for the powder keg region?  Click on the title boxes below to read each story. Your browser does not support the video tag. A country called Kurdistan? Is independence around the corner for Iraq's Kurds? Martyn Aim/IRIN The Kurdish struggle in northern Syria As Iraqi Kurds prepare for a historic independence referendum, whither their Syrian brethren? Andrea DiCenzo/IRIN What do Yazidis make of Kurdish independence? Next week's independence referendum has divided one of Iraqi Kurdistan's most persecuted groups Martyn Aim/IRIN Vote violence in flashpoint city signals long road for Iraqi Kurdistan Much of Iraqi Kurdistan may be rejoicing, but the divided city of Tuz Khurmatu still worries for its future Tom Westcott/IRIN   Iraqi Kurdistan has voted for independence. What now? The Iraqi Kurdish referendum won’t be ushering in independence just yet, but it has brought plenty of political upheaval Martyn Aim/IRIN   Kirkuk loss fractures fragile Kurdish unity The battle (that wasn’t) for Kirkuk exposed the unpopularity of independence for non-Kurdish minority groups in the region Tom Westcott/IRIN           The uncertain future of the Kurdish people Kurdistan shop cropped Special Report Migration Conflict Politics and Economics IRIN Iran Middle East and North Africa Iraq Syria Turkey [...]

What do Yazidis make of Kurdish independence?

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 07:41:51 +0000

Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum hangs on tenterhooks, with Iraq’s prime minister promising military intervention should Monday’s vote lead to violence, the US, UK, and UN urging Kurdish leaders not to move forward, and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s parliament voting to do just that. With much of society apparently in two minds about the referendum, especially its timing, one group the authorities long believed they could count on for a “yes” vote was the Yazidis, a Kurdish minority singled out by so-called Islamic State for especially cruel treatment in a campaign the UN has deemed genocide. But Yazidis – displaced in different camps and mostly hailing from Sinjar, a contested area that could become a flashpoint for further conflict if the vote goes forward – are themselves divided on the independence question. D Nahr/UNHCR Many internally displaced Yazidis have taken shelter in camps or housing near Dohuk “It’s the same for us if we vote or if we don’t vote,” Hassan, a Yazidi father of four living in a sprawling camp near the city of Dohuk, told IRIN. “Everyone treats us badly. Both the Arabs and the Kurds have treated us very badly. Both sides look out for their own interests and, meanwhile, nobody helps us.”   He gestured around the small tent he and his family have called home for two years: “There are 6,000 Yazidis living like this here, in just this one camp, but no one is interested in helping us to rebuild our homes and return home.” Backing for Iraq’s other armed force   Hassan said many Yazidis have thrown their support behind the predominantly Shia Hashd al-Shaabi forces, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Units, or PMU. Formed in 2014 of pre-existing militias and new volunteers with the express purpose of fighting IS and now officially under the authority of the Iraqi government, the PMU played a major role in liberating parts of Sinjar from IS, arming Yazidis who were willing to join. According to PMU spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi, 2,000 Yazidis have joined the force and are stationed in positions around Sinjar, mostly in areas still classed as military zones. “It’s good that [Yazidi] people are joining the Hashd,” Hassan said, while older family members nodded sagely in agreement. “They are [a] good option and a better one for us than the Kurds.” A key PMU leader has recently come out against the referendum. Iran, which supports the PMU with weapons, ammunition, and training, is also opposed to the vote.  But a few kilometres down the road from Hassan and his scepticism, at a makeshift garage and petrol station, Yazidi mechanic Yusef, selling fuel from barrels, was brimming with enthusiasm. “This referendum is good for the Kurdish people and good for the Yazidis,” he said, beaming. “The Kurds are supported by the US and together they support us. I’ll absolutely be voting yes.” History of persecution Most of Iraq’s Yazidis hail from Sinjar, in Nineveh province. More than 275,000 people – including tens of thousands of Yazidis – were driven from their homes there in August 2014 as IS swept through, terrorising the Yazidi population, who they characterise as pagans.  Innocent civilians were killed, abducted, and forced to convert under torture. Women were taken into sexual slavery, and many are believed to be still captive. Many fled IS slaughter to the top of Mount Sinjar, where some were dramatically rescued. Yazidis who remained on the mountain split. Some joined forces with a militia that has ties to Turkish- and Syrian-based Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while others are loyal to KRG President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). [...]