To Flee? A Refugee’s Dilemma

by Medea Jaff

To flee? That is the question which thousands of people in war-torn parts of the Middle East are asking themselves.

 It’s not an easy question to answer. The question is especially difficult to answer if you are a parent. This week we witnessed the tragic death of an innocent three year old child named Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey. Alan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan lost their lives when their boat overturned in the Aegean Sea. The only surviving member of the family is the father, who buried his family in their hometown of Kobani. Alan has become an iconic image representing all the children who have lost their lives in this conflict. His image has highlighted the plight of the refugees, whether they are Kurdish, Assyrian, Chaldean, Druze, or Arabian.

As many will remember, Kobani is the Kurdish town in western Kurdistan (north-eastern Syria), which gained fame in 2014 for its epic resilience in the face of the Islamic State (IS). The town suffered great losses, both in lives and in its infrastructure. Many of the townspeople fled to Turkey which is within view from Kobani, the reception they have received in Turkey has been far from humane. Kurds trying to cross back into Kobani after the town was liberated, were either arrested or shot at by Turkish forces, while Turkey has openly been supporting the IS logistically and financially, as well as treating wounded IS members in Turkish hospitals. Many photographs and videos have surfaced on social media platforms, showing the amicable relationship between the Turkish army and Islamic State fighters, while on the other hand, Turkish forces have been brutal in their treatment of Kurdish refugees crossing the border.

Journalists reporting on site have also had their fair share of trouble and harassment from the Turkish government. In 2014, an American journalist, Serena Shim, was mysteriously killed in a car crash in Suruç in Turkey; this incident occurred only days after she appeared on camera, expressing fears that she might be arrested. Shim had reported that Islamic State fighters were being smuggled across the Syrian border in the back of aid vehicles. She claimed that Turkish intelligence agents had accused her of spying when she was covering the siege of Kobani.

The town of Suruç is where another incident made the news. In July, 2015, a group of young volunteers were giving a press statement on their mission to travel to the city of Kobani, to help in the reconstruction of this battered city. A suicide bomber soon put an end to this humanitarian mission, killing 33 people, and wounding over a hundred others.

A recent incident which came to light is the funeral procession for little Alan, his brother and their mother, who were mentioned earlier. Crowds showed their respect and support by following the vehicles along the route; they wanted to cross over to Kobani; these people were attacked on the border by the Turkish army, preventing them from attending the funeral.

In the recent Turkish elections, the ruling AKP party led by current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lost the majority required to form a government, while the pro-Kurdish party HDP gained seats for the first time, giving Kurds a voice in parliament. Days after the election results were announced; Erdoğan declared that Turkey will do whatever it takes to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state in Syria.

Soon after this announcement, Turkish planes carried out more than 500 air strikes in one month on Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq; under the pretense of attacking Islamic State positions. These areas of Kurdistan include seven Christian villages, Sharansh, Baz, Barwary Bala, Hayes, Dawoodiya and Margerija. The village of Sharansh hosts around sixty Christian families who had escaped from the Nineveh plain and Mosul after the Islamic State attacks. In Dawoodiya there is a refugee camp with 700 IDPs from the Kurdish Ezidi town of Shingar, the Nineveh plain and Mosul. It is important to point out that the attacks are directed at the only effective military force against the Islamic State, the Kurds, in addition to that, Turkey is helping the Islamic State in diminishing the Christian population in the region. In other words, now the Islamic State has a strong air force backing its fighters.

It is important to point out that the attacks are directed at the only effective military force against the Islamic State, the Kurds, in addition to that, Turkey is helping the Islamic State in diminishing the Christian population in the region.

A curfew has been imposed on Kurdish cities in Turkey. On September 5th, children playing on the streets of the town of Cizre were fired at by Turkish police, killing a three year old boy. Such attacks are not unusual, one of the children said, “We’ll keep playing, we’re used to it, it’s normal”. In spite of all this, Kurds have no choice but to seek refuge in the enemy’s lair.

Thousands of people have expressed their shock and anger at how Turkey has not had to answer for any of the atrocities it is committing on a daily basis. In fact, NATO has done the opposite by officially supporting its member state, Turkey. The United Nations in their turn too, have not condemned Turkey’s actions. This organisation was established to protect people of all nations, but we are seeing the opposite; their response has been that of nonchalance.

Some have asked why the refugees would want to leave Turkey and risk their lives by crossing the sea in unsafe rubber boats, if they are safe in Turkey. What these people don’t know is that Turkey is far from safe; according to the UN, 18,000 Syrian children have been victims of organ harvesting in Turkey’s refugee camps, this disturbing figure is from 2014.

As a native Kurd, and having lived through similar experiences throughout my life, I can understand what these humans are going through only too well. My parents were also faced with this question, “To flee or not to flee?”

To flee or not to flee?

The first time we were faced with this question, the decision was made to flee to a safer town. We headed from Baghdad to my father’s hometown in the southernmost point in Kurdistan. This was during the First Gulf war in 1991, Saddam Hussein’s army advanced on Kurdish towns, shelling civilians randomly. After a few days of taking shelter under the stairs, as it was the safest part of the house, we had no choice but to drive through the shelling to a nearby town. We would remain in each town for a day or two, sometimes we’d have to sleep in the wilderness, and then flee again when we’d hear the sound of mortar shelling nearing. We found ourselves being part of the Kurdish exodus, on our way to Iran as refugees.

That experience left its mark on us; we promised ourselves that next time (as we were sure that there’ll be a next time) we will remain in our home in Baghdad, and if we’re to die, we’d rather die in our home. And that is exactly what we did in 2003, in the Second Gulf war; we remained in our home, come what may. It’s not easy making such decisions; it is literally a matter of life and death.

That experience left its mark on us; we promised ourselves that next time (as we were sure that there’ll be a next time) we will remain in our home in Baghdad, and if we’re to die, we’d rather die in our home.

We now know the possibilities which refugees face in Turkey, from being attacked by Turkish forces, to being victims of organ harvesting at the refugee camps, smugglers stealing from them, or worse, giving them rubber boats which cannot survive the violent sea voyage. Let’s now delve into what they have to face if they decide not to flee.

When the siege of Kobani started in September 2014, the Kurdish fighters were outnumbered by the IS fighters, in addition to that, they had outdated weapons, whereas the IS fighters had modern weapons. In spite of the odds being against them, every man and woman who remained in Kobani, became a fighter, from young teenagers to grandmothers and grandfathers. Reinforcements from Iraq’s Kurdistan couldn’t get through at first, until finally the Turkish government gave the Kurdish Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) permission to use the route through Turkey.

Soon after, and with the help of air strikes by the coalition forces, the Kurds were able to liberate Kobani. However, this didn’t come without a price, every family lost loved ones. Children and women were raped then murdered in the neighbourhoods which were under the Islamic State’s control. Many of the villages which are in the Kobani canton are still under IS control. The conditions which these people are living in are horrific, daily beheadings have become the norm. Women and children are sold in slave markets, often being purchased by one or more men, raped several times a day. Girls are taken to other parts, sometimes as far as the city of Mosul, which is the Islamic State’s stronghold in Iraq. If a girl refuses to submit to these men, she is raped and beheaded, made an example of in front of other girls.

Several months after the liberation of Kobani, the Islamic State made a surprise attack on one of the neighbourhoods in the city, their objective was not to retake the town, but to attack homes, kill everyone they find, and then withdraw from Kobani. More than thirty five civilians and Kurdish fighters were killed, as well as twenty three people in the neighbouring village of Barkh Butan.

Iraq’s Kurdistan region has hosted two million internally displaced Persons (IDP), and refugees from Syria and Iraq. The upsurge in refugee numbers is due to the ongoing IS attacks on the Mosul plains, and Anbar province. Despite the fact that Kurdistan is not an independent country it has nevertheless taken in more refugees than it can handle and without discrimination. The region has been going through an economic crisis since the central government in Baghdad has refused to give the Kurds their allocated share of the Iraqi budget; this budget dispute has meant that civil employees and the Kurdish forces have not received their salaries for well over a year. Baghdad has also kept the Kurdish region’s share of weapons from reaching them, and objected when other countries intended to arm the Kurds directly, claiming that it’s a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, and by doing so Baghdad effectively put another monkey wrench in the works. Another factor in this economic crisis is the unstable conditions since the emergence of the Islamic State. Foreign investors are not as keen as before to invest in Kurdistan, this has led to a 50% drop in the economy, with many companies retaining only some of their staff to run their businesses.

 Despite all these crippling factors, the Kurdistan Region’s government (KRG) still managed to provide what it can for the two million refugees. Aid organisations and private donations have also contributed to ease this crisis; however the sheer magnitude of the refugee crisis remains overwhelming.

After this in-depth look at the two options open to people in a war zone. Which would you choose? Would you flee, or remain at home? In both cases, one thing is for sure, you will be facing the unknown.

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