Khanaqin, Iraq—The Kurdish families drove hastily packed trucks over the hills to the eastern Iraqi village of Baba Mahmood five weeks ago, coming home almost 30 years after they were forcibly relocated to western Iraq from this rural, verdant patch, and replaced with Arab families, mostly from southern Iraq. So far, only 10 Kurdish families have returned to this community, which can accommodate 10 times that number, and so Baba Mahmood today is still a deserted, spooky little village. The names of future Kurdish residents are sprayed in green paint on the doors of empty mud apartments, still littered with plastic shoes, personal documents, and sheep’s wool left by their former occupants. And on the edge of the village, the Kurds have wasted no time plowing the fields straddling a filthy stream, where they will plant orange, apple, and plum trees—fruits they say their families harvested here before they left in 1975.
Ibrahim Ismail, one of the returnees, says by the time he reached Baba Mahmood four days after the end of the war, the village had been emptied. Members of the Iraqi Arab family that lived in the house he has taken over returned only once, to collect their furniture. “They came with a truck and took their things,” he says. “I didn’t ask their names.” Ismail says this land has belonged to the Kurds since Ottoman times. “The Arabs cut down the trees our families had planted, and they used them to cover their houses,” he says, pointing to the timber roof of one hut. “They told me that they always knew we’d come back.”
It is Kurdish land, he repeats, surrounded by his children and a brother, who also claimed one of the houses. “The Arabs knew this, and so they left.”
Whether the Arabs left, or indeed were forced out by the peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is disputed. Many of the Arab families evicted from this area say returning Kurdish soldiers gave them 48 hours to leave their villages, and that they had no choice but to comply. A spokesman for the PUK calls this claim a “lie.”
Regardless of how it happened, the result is clear—large populations in the country are again being forced into the uneasy limbo of homelessness, some of them for a fourth or fifth time in their lives. It is an ever expanding wave from the war in Iraq, uprooting peoples as a festering vengeance ripples out onto the land, undoing the social order in a succession of quickly settled scores.
The Kurds have moved quickly, and some of the officials who represent them say that it is the “original sin”—the persecution of their people under successive central governments—which justifies, in the words of one PUK minister, “the counter-act [sic] of ethnic cleansing.” Why wait for the new government, says the minister, when the road to redress in this case is clear? The Arabs in places like Baba Mahmood were collaborators with the regime, say the Kurds who replaced them, and as such, they must have expected the other shoe to drop.
But Saddam Hussein’s sins stain many in Iraq these days, and in recent weeks Baghdad’s Palestinians have also come under fire for their alleged crimes, if not only for the affection the regime had for their cause. Like the Arab villagers from the Kurdish areas, they have been forced out of their homes, in this case, by their landlords.
Many Iraqi Arabs who fled Baba Mahmood and other formerly Kurdish villages around the city of Khanaqin say they did indeed expect that the original residents would one day come back, and that they understood the Kurds were unjustly evicted from their villages by the central government. Many of the Arabs belong to a handful of tribes originally from southern Iraq. They are now settled in a number of large buildings on the road north of Baghdad, occupying most of a large, unfinished prison, and parts of a badly looted military college.
Khanaqin was a focal point of the so-called policy of Arabization, and a large part of that policy meant replacing Kurds with Arabs, especially in and around oil-rich cities like Khanaqin and Kirkuk, in an effort to alter the demographic balance. In its more severe forms, this policy meant genocide, as demonstrated by the ruthless 1988 Anfal campaign that resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Kurds.
Sabinah Abdullah, a tattooed, elderly matriarch of the Al-Nadawi tribe, blames God and not Saddam for her family’s current lot. Forty family members have settled in what appears to have been a dormitory at the military college. There is no water available, so they draw it from the river, which she says is making everyone sick. Luckily, a family member is a doctor at a nearby clinic, so there is some medicine available. They still have the government food rations handed out before the war, which she reckons will last for another month and a half.
She says PUK officials came to her village not far from Khanaqin two days before the end of the war, and gave them 24 hours to leave. There was no offer of money for her home, but they did offer to pay for transportation. She and her family settled the village in 1978, encouraged to move by a government discount of roughly $30,000 for a house. Her husband worked in the oil ministry there, and yes, other family members were soldiers, but some simply worked in construction. She says after the family was evicted, they tried to get help from American soldiers. “But the translator was a Kurd,” she says. “I don’t think he translated correctly.”
Members of the Sulayfeyeen tribe are better off than the Al-Nadawi; the prison they live in is largely intact, and many of the houses seem to have a bit of electricity, semi-regular water, and even cars. The head of one household offers Pepsis all around, and some moderately expensive cigarettes. “We did expect the Kurds to come,” says Hadeeb Hamid Hamed, whose family moved north to a Kurdish village from Nasiriyah in 1975. He has ideas about where his family should now move. “Uday had 250,000 dunams [about 55,000 acres], and we could take some of that,” he says, before listing the landholdings of three other relatives of Saddam Hussein. He also cites the possibility of returning to Nasiriyah, but has concerns about the quantity of water available on his family’s land there.
There are no exact numbers for Arab families forced from the areas in and around Khanaqin in the days following the war, but those who have resettled here believe at least 600 families were evicted, and with many of these families boasting 10 or more members, that puts the displaced in the thousands. Hamed says 150 families from his tribe have made the move, and most of them have settled in the buildings along this road. He says this is the third forced migration in his life; he claims the first two times his family was transferred because he refused to join the Baath Party.
“We understand why this happened,” says Hamed. “We are just waiting for the new government, and we will ask for more land.” Iraq is a rich country, he stresses, with room for everyone.
But on the subject of the most recent forced relocations in Iraq, that of the Palestinians in Baghdad, Hamed has a different opinion. “The Iraqis [who are expelling Palestinians] are doing a good thing,” he says. “Because they were Palestinian, they got houses, and other people had nowhere to live. Saddam didn’t give them houses for nothing. So they are also responsible.” Hamed wonders aloud why the Palestinians came to Iraq in the first place.
The Palestinians gathered in this hot and airless tent are teenagers who have spent their entire lives in Baghdad. For the first time, they say, they are feeling what it is to be different and resented. One-hundred and sixty-five families now occupy the tents erected on the soccer field of the Haifa Sporting Club, and according to this new refugee camp’s director, the number could jump to over 500, because 539 other Palestinian families have been asked to leave their homes. The evictions might simply be motivated by money. For years, the government forced landlords to charge the Palestinians greatly reduced rent, and some families were able to rent an apartment with a market value of $50 a month for $25 per year.
But there has been no real outcry over the evictions. In conversations with Iraqis there is a distinct lack of sympathy for the troubles the Palestinians now face, and they suggest complicity with the former regime, if only a passive one. The Palestinian flag appears alongside the Iraqi colors on billboards throughout the country, and Hussein’s support of the cause was well known, including his financial contributions to families in Palestine who had lost members in the struggle with Israel.
None of this is the teenagers’ fault, and yet they are feeling the consequences in a very real way. “They say things like ‘Go back to your country’ or ‘You sold Palestine,’ ” says Osama Khalid, an 18-year-old now considering his college options. His family was given two days to leave by its landlord; like most of the families, negotiation on a reasonable rental price wasn’t even an option. And like many of the kids congregating here, he is torn when he considers Hussein’s regime. “He was a strong Arab president,” he says. “Our lives were good.”
Anwar Salim Al-Awawdeh, the director of the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Iraq, has asked the Americans to find a building for the displaced families. There are some meetings scheduled, and he seems hopeful. And he believes that Iraqis overwhelmingly support the refugees. “A lot of Iraqis have defended us, and in fact, many are providing security for this camp,” he says.
“But I feel like these families feel,” he says. “We’re in these Arab countries, waiting to go back to our cities and our villages. And every time there’s a crisis, we end up back in tents and camps.”
For his part, Abdul Razaq Merza of the PUK believes the recent treatment of the Palestinians constitutes “a cruel and systematic animosity.”
“They are our brothers, and they are our guests,” he says, sitting in an auditorium in one of the many offices the PUK has opened in Baghdad. “People should be waiting for normal life, for the new government to judge individual cases,” he concludes.
Strangely, though, his logic does not extend to the question of the Arab inhabitants of the Kurdish towns and villages. While he believes the families deserve compensation for their recent sacrifices, this should not mean the possibility of return to the Kurdish villages, even for younger people who may have spent their whole lives in a place like Khanaqin. “They are not our problem,” he says. “Their presence is the result of a criminal act, and they should go back to their original places.”
“They are part of the regime,” he says. “They are not farmers. All of them were there to run those atrocious government institutions, and they were given good salaries.”
Sabina Abdullah, of the Al-Nadawi clan, insists this was not true of her family. “We were not Baathists,” she says. “None of my family were officers. We had nothing to do with the party.” She has no kind words for the past regime, and little understanding of the men who evicted her and her family this time.
“Nobody owns this life,” she says. “Everybody has their turn.”