Baharka camp, July 2014. Image credit: Peter Henderson. All rights reserved.
Around twenty minutes’ drive from Erbil city is the Baharka camp for refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). It lies in the semi-industrial zone of factories and warehouses and quiet side roads, far from any centres of habitation. Previously, refugees from Syria were housed here, in a warehouse that is open at each end. After the Syrian refugees were resettled elsewhere, it was the turn of people from Tel Afar, a town to the west of Mosul that has been occupied by forces linked to the Islamic State (IS).
At night the fluorescent lights of the warehouse building give the area an unnatural green glow; inside the scale of the warehouse brings to mind a sepulchral cavern. There were almost 1,200 people there the night I visited. Some stayed inside despite the humidity, with sheep pens marking the areas assigned to each family; there were no screens to give the families privacy. Others rested outside under the half-moon that marked the quarter point of the month of Ramadan. On the ground, motionless bodies lay on foam mattresses.
These IDPs were Turkmen – Tel Afar was, before IS’s advance, primarily a Turkmen town. Many people had driven for hours to reach safety. They described how IS had attacked the town and how houses had been destroyed, how the local security forces had melted away. One man, asked about the chances of returning to Tel Afar, made a gesture – he passed his hand across his throat. They were Shi‘i Muslims; IS has shown the Shi‘a it has captured no mercy.
Iraq’s Turkmen are one of the country’s more numerous minorities, possibly comprising the fourth largest group after the Shi‘a and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, although substantial emigration since the 1990s has reduced their numbers. They are themselves split between Sunni and Shi‘a Turkmen, although historically the religious divide was not their main fracture: instead the primary division was between factions which aligned with Turkey, seen as the group’s protector, and those who worked with the Kurdish autonomous government.
However, the last few years’ reorientation away from nationalism and towards Sunni Islamism by the Turkish government, and the rapprochement between Ankara and the KRG, has eroded the support the non-Sunni Turkmen have received from there. Combined with the general atmosphere of sectarianism in Iraq this has resulted in increasing religious friction within the Turkmen community; there are reports of inter-Turkmen clashes along sectarian lines in some areas, including in Tel Afar where some of the local Sunnis welcomed IS’s arrival.
Speaking with local relief workers, it emerged that many of the IDPs had already left, and that many more were to leave that night – but not to Tel Afar. They were to be flown to the city of Najaf in the south of Iraq; a holy place for the Shi‘a. This was reportedly an initiative of then-Prime Minister Maliki, a Shi‘a, and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, a Shi‘a cleric; the Kurdish government was not funding the exodus. In the first half of July, more than 10,000 Shi‘a Turkmen were flown from Erbil to southern Iraq. Some were transited through the Baharka camp; some were simply bussed from the IDP camp at Khazir on the Kurdish border straight to the airport.
To the Kurds, more interested in ethnicity than religion, the Turkmen are little distinguished from Arabs. Some Kurds still bear resentment against the Turkmen due to a perceived alignment with Baghdad against the Kurds under Saddam Hussein and a belief that the Turkmen benefited from the Arabisation campaigns of the Ba‘athist government. However, the Turkmen point to equal discrimination against them in that period, when historically Turkmen areas saw an influx of government-sponsored Arab settlers and when they were prevented from registering as Turkmen on official forms.
Now, though, it seems that for the government in Baghdad and for the Shi‘a religious establishment in the south of Iraq, the religion of the Turkmen trumps their non-Arab status. But the Turkmen stress their unique heritage that includes a language of their own. This is not to imply that the Turkmen are being forcibly relocated; on the contrary most feel that they will only be safe surrounded by other Shi‘a. Exile from their ancestral land, and the loss of all the possessions they couldn’t bring with them, is a price that they feel forced to pay for their safety.
Ninawa province has long been home to a number of minority ethnic and religious groups. Some groups, such as the Yezidis and the Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, get protection and patronage from the Kurds, whether they want it or not – and in the current situation being considered a Kurd by the KRG is very useful, with the Kurdish part of Iraq remaining stable. However, the Kurds have never considered the Turkmen to be Kurds.
This latest development marks a new stage in Ninawa’s demographic evolution. While the plans to relocate parts of the Turkmen community to Najaf may be well intentioned, life for them there is unlikely to be easy. As outsiders they will face challenges, and if they are unable to return home soon they may struggle to preserve their distinct culture. And it is not possible to know whether, if stability is restored to Tel Afar, any effort will be made to return them to their homes.
This suggests that the relocation of the Turkmen, however well meant, may have effects beyond those intended. Their departure will significantly alter Ninawa’s demographics, possibly permanently. The survival of the Turkmen as a group away from their ancestral lands is not a given. The resulting depopulation of Tel Afar could create a vacuum that could become a focus for renewed conflict in Ninawa. The increasing fractures between Sunni and Shi‘a Turkmen will also make the continued survival of Iraq’s Turkmen community more difficult. At a time when Iraq’s other minority groups, among them the Chaldo-Assyrians, the Yezidis, the Shabaks and the Kaka’is, are under severe threat, this is another piece of Iraq’s demographic fabric that is unravelling.