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Iraqis trickling back to Mosul, but bracing for more violence

BY Larisa Epatko  June 26, 2014 at 9:18 AM EST
A woman stands outside a tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13 in Kalak, Iraq. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A woman stands outside a tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13 in Kalak, Iraq. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

When Islamic militants swept into Mosul in northern Iraq earlier this month, at least 500,000 people fled the city. Some have since returned, but many others are watching and waiting in the nearby relatively peaceful Kurdish region.

The thousands of displaced Iraqis in the Kurdish region are staying with relatives and friends, in schools that are empty for the summer, and in temporary camps, said Steve Claborne, Mercy Corps’ Iraq country director.

“That’s a lot of people to move into the Kurdish region, and there are some concerns about how to manage that number of people over the long term, in addition to the 250,000 Syrian refugees still here,” he said from the Kurdish regional capital Irbil.

The autonomous Kurdish government with the help of the United Nations has set up temporary camps near checkpoints at its border to handle the influx of Iraqis.

The new arrivals are given a hygiene kit, which includes a bucket for water, tarpaulin for shelter, toothpaste, soap, sanitary napkins and other items to help with short-term needs, said Claborne. For the longer-term, the displaced people are given enough cash — about $100 to $200 — so they can purchase food and other supplies from the local markets. “They’re not in the middle of nowhere, like you see with other displaced populations,” he said. “They’re usually in towns, cities or village centers,” where the markets are still functioning.

Iraqis fleeing Mosul after it was overrun by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants have sought refuge in the Kurdish-administered north.

Iraqis fleeing Mosul after it was overrun by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants have sought refuge in the Kurdish-administered north.

As the fighting has died down in Mosul, several thousand Iraqis have gone back to their homes even though the militants are still in charge. When making their decision to return, the displaced Iraqis often will send a male relative back to see if their home is in livable condition and their property is secure, said Claborne. They also check on whether basic services — electricity and water — are operating.

Arab Sunnis might feel more secure returning because they’re not being actively targeted by the Sunni militants, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said Claborne. The minority Shia and Turkmen might wait longer, not only because of ISIL, but because of the historical tensions among the different groups, he explained.

But as ISIL moves into other cities and towns to the southeast in an apparent push toward Baghdad, more Iraqis are picking up and leaving their homes.

Claborne likens the ebb and flow of homeless Iraqis to “a moving target, so to speak.” How do aid groups handle the moving masses? “You make your best estimate, stockpile tents and nonfood items,” and work with grassroots groups to serve as “local responders” to distribute the stockpiled supplies, he said.

When the Iraqi government tries to retake the cities and towns now under ISIL, Claborne expects to see another wave of displaced Iraqis, particularly from the Nineveh plains east of Mosul. This agricultural area has many Turkmen and Christian minorities, who are considered infidels by ISIL.

It’s hard to know when the next wave will come or how long the Iraqis will be away from home, said Claborne. It could be awhile, he said, since the response to the conflict in Iraq appears to require a political solution — an inclusive government that takes into account the needs of all Iraqis — along with a military one that dislodges the militants.

“Syria started out with only 300,000 refugees or displaced people, but now there’s 6.5 million,” said Claborne. Similarly, if not resolved quickly, the crisis in Iraq “could potentially be a much larger disaster than it is now. We’re still in the early days and the end is so unpredictable.”