Wahab Mashoor Muhammad and his sons © 2002 Christopher Allbritton
BINISLAWA DISPLACED PERSONS CAMP, Iraqi Kurdistan — The day is hot, damn hot. It’s the middle of July, and the air is dry and thirsty with the thermometer bumping against the 45 degree Celsius mark. Little dust devils curl up around my heels as I walk. Yet inside a tent that 11 people call home, the water is cold and refreshing and the hospitality is genuine.
Abdullah Salam, my guide from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and I have come here to Binislawa where thousands of tent homes are set up and tens of thousands of people wait for relief from someone. As we approach one tent, Wahab Mashoor Muhammad, 49, greets us and welcomes us into his home.
It’s not much, to be honest. The floor is poured concrete and the walls are cinderblocks packed with mud to hold them in place. Poles support the canvas “roof” which is all that protects them from the winds and the cold of winter. There is no heat or running water. But it’s clean, and Wahab’s wife and daughters arrange pillows for us to sit on. Another daughter brings me a glass of water from a plastic cooler.
He’s been here since July 18, 2001, almost a year to the day that I visit. He’s from Kaznafar, a village outside Kirkuk, the largest Kurdish city in Iraq, where he was a taxi driver. He was forced to leave his home with a few blankets, some kitchen items and his family when he refused to change his nationality from Kurdish to Arab under a program called “Arabization” that Saddam Hussein’s regime has been engaging in since the 1970s. In other parts of the world, it would be called ethnic cleansing.
“I’m a Kurd,” he says. “How can I be an Arab or change my nationality? It’s wrong for a man to deny his nationality.”
Arabization has been going on since the 1920s, ever since the Kingdom of Iraq was created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire by the United Kingdom. But it was intensified after 1975 after the Algerian Agreement between Iran and Iraq, under which the Shah cut his support for Kurdish rebels in Iraq. Kurds are forcibly evicted from their homes in Kirkuk, Mosul and other oil-rich regions of northern Iraq unless they agree to have their registered nationality changed to Arab. If they refuse, which many do, they are expelled from their homes, usually with only a few hours to gather their possessions and turned north, to the Kurdish enclave in the north. Arab families are lured from the south to the vacant Kurdish homes in the north with money, land and pickup trucks, all confiscated from the displaced Kurds. It is estimated that more than 8,000 families live in Binislawa. That’s more than 50,000 people.
NATO went to war in 1998-99 in Kosovo and Yugoslavia to prevent this kind of stuff.
But changing his ethnicity isn’t all Wahab was expected to do. The Iraqis demanded he join the elite Jerusalem Brigade, which now holds positions about 20 km outside of Arbil. So named because Saddam has said this fighting force will be the one to liberate Jerusalem from the Jews, the Kurds say that the road to Jerusalem runs through Kurdistan. Wahab was being told he must be prepared to make war on his own people.
Since he refused all this, he was expelled, along with his wife, his mother and his eight children. Now they all live in a tent, and they might be considered the lucky ones.
- In 1983, 8,000 Kurds were “disappeared” by the Iraqi regime.
- In 1987-88, 180,000 people disappeared or were executed under the Anfal Campaign. “Anfal” is a principle from the Koran and it allows the looting of a non-Muslim population when Muslims conquer them.
- In 1988, Halabja became a nightmare when Saddam used chemical weapons against women and children, killing 5,000 people in about 15 minutes. More than 10,000 people were injured and the region suffers from lingering health problems. In all, more than 200 villages were gassed and no one is sure how many people died. There have been no studies on the after-effects of the chemicals on the population or the environment.
So, Wahab is understandably anxious to see Saddam go. “If Saddam is overthrown, I would run back to Kirkuk!” says Wahab. “My family has been living there for 300 years.”
He may get his wish come February.