ZAKHO, Iraq: Joundi Khodr Kalo is a police officer in a village in the Sinjar region. When clashes broke out between Yazidi fighters and the Iraqi army, he, like thousands of others, had to leave his homeland again.
The majority of the 10,000 displaced people who have been sheltered in recent days in Iraqi Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, have already tasted the precarious living conditions of the camps. They had first fled Sinjar, the historic home of the Yazidi minority, with the arrival of the Islamic State (IS) group in 2014.
“Last time we were moved for fear of IS. We stayed in a camp for six years,” recalls Mr. Kalo, 37, who arrived on May 2 with his wife and five children at Chamishko camp, near the town of Zakho.
It had been barely two years since he had returned to his village. “Despite the difficulties, we succeeded every day,” he sighs. But lately the situation had deteriorated.”
Two days of rare fierce fighting against the Iraqi army and the Sinjar Resistance Units, an armed faction affiliated with the Turkish-Kurdish rebels, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), on May 1 and 2.
But for a long time the region lived to the rhythm of skirmishes. “Every day we heard the sounds of gunshots and explosions, we were afraid for our families,” said Mr. calo.
– “Overcrowding” –
An ancient Kurdish community adept at an esoteric monotheistic religion, the Yazidi minority have been persecuted for centuries for their beliefs. Before undergoing the full force of IS violence.
Among the displaced persons who recently arrived in autonomous Kurdistan are many who, having fled IS for the first time, did not return home until 2020, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) .
Tents made of thick tarpaulin are set up along the alleys of Chamishko, which are home to more than 22,000 people. Inside, the same fine foam mattresses have been laid on the floor, where old women sit with worried faces.
At the administrative offices, dozens of men and women form two rows in front of a truck that distributes boxes of food aid: a kilo of sugar, tea, rice, flour, milk. Enough for a week.
According to a local official, some 1,711 families from Sinjar, or 10,261 people, arrived in the first week of May. Today 964 families live in camps. The others have sought refuge with relatives.
“The camps are overcrowded and there is a risk of limited access to basic services due to a decline in humanitarian funding,” said UNHCR spokesman Firas al-Khateeb.
His agency supports “sustainable solutions” for people to return home, he says. “But any return must be voluntary, respect human dignity and take place in a peaceful environment.”
According to the Iraqi authorities, calm has returned to Sinjar. But the latest fever outbreak illustrates the tensions simmering in a sector involving a large number of actors.
– “Nobody will return” –
The Sinjar Resistance Units, whose fighters are also affiliated with former Hachd al-Chaabi paramilitaries, accuse the military of seeking to take control of their region.
The army wants to implement an agreement negotiated by Baghdad with Iraqi Kurdistan, which stipulates the withdrawal of Yazidi fighters and the PKK.
“Military reinforcements” have been sent to Sinjar to “impose state hegemony,” the joint command of the Iraqi security forces said in a statement on May 5. “We will not allow the presence of armed groups.”
Sinjar has also been the target of sporadic airstrikes by neighboring Turkey on bases of the PKK, a group identified as “terrorist” by Ankara.
The Yazidis are secondary victims in this powder keg.
Zaïm Hassan Hamad, 65, fled Sinjar for the first time because of “IS attacks”. Today, along with her children and grandchildren, her family of 17 is reunited in Chamishko.
“If we do not have security and stability, we will not return to Sinjar this time. We cannot return and be displaced every time,” he says: “If the Hachd, the PKK and the military stay in the region, people will be afraid and no one will return.”