For Jaleel Ismael Agha, a Kurd, this is a story about justice and about coming home. More than 15 years ago, Saddam Hussein’s regime razed his house, took his herd of cattle, his plow and his mill and forced him to leave his village.
Agha was a victim of Hussein’s “Arabization” campaign, a 30-year effort in “ethnic cleansing” that tried to force out Kurds from a swath of historically Kurdish northern Iraq and to bring in Arabs.
Not long after the regime fell, Agha chose a small brick and stucco house on a quiet residential street in this town near the border with Iran. The 51-year-old quickly moved in with his wife and children. “We are enjoying these times,” he said, a hardy smile beneath his thick white mustache.
For Mahmoud Salman, an Arab, this is a story about oppression and eviction. Salman is 56, and his is the house that Agha picked. He says Kurdish fighters ordered him to leave. For the first time in his life, he is homeless. He is living with his children and his grandchildren in a dilapidated former Iraqi army barracks an hour and a half from his home -- without water, electricity or furniture.
“We are confused, God help us,” Salman said, his voice cracking and his face contorting as he sobbed. “We don’t know our future. We don’t have bread.”
Between Agha and Salman there exists the moral ambiguity that often follows the fall of a repressive regime, in which one group of people, by virtue of ethnicity or affiliation, is able to lord over another. Suddenly, the oppressed becomes the oppressor -- or, at the very least, the victor.
In the northern regions of Iraq, where for decades ethnic Kurds and Turks were terrorized, it is now the Arabs who find themselves under siege, forced out of their homes by the Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga -- “the ones who face death.” Those who have stayed behind are afraid to speak Arabic.
Very few are staying behind.
“If there are some Arabs staying, we ask them why don’t they leave,” said Mala Bakhtiar, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of the dominant political parties in the north -- and one that is organizing some of the expulsions.
“This is our right to tell them to return to their original homes,” said Bakhtiar, who is functioning as a regional supervisor for towns that once were under Baghdad’s control.
A small contingent of U.S. Special Forces soldiers is based in Khanaqin. One of the officers, who asked that he not be identified, said Arabs who dispute Kurd claims to their homes are being taken to a PUK commander for arbitration.
“It’s going to take a long time before anybody can straighten this out,” the officer said, because the claims are emotionally and legally complex. “You feel for them [the Arabs]. Ninety-nine percent of them were good people who did nothing but follow the rules.”
Human Rights Watch, which has documented the expulsions of Arabs in the north, has urged U.S. and Kurdish officials to establish a mechanism to settle the claims over disputed property and other assets.
“U.S. troops must stop the violence,” Hania Mufti, London director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said last month in a news release. “And PUK leaders should take immediate steps to halt any expulsions of Iraqi Arabs from their homes.”
Whether Agha or Salman is seen as the aggrieved party, their tit-for-tat tragedy speaks directly to questions about the future of this scared and weary country: Can Iraq heal itself? Can its people come together?
Many of the Shiites in the south, also oppressed by Hussein’s Sunni-led regime, are calling for unity while pushing for superiority. That seems to be the dynamic in the north too.
“If you want to be objective, the Arabs harmed us and we suffered a lot because of them,” Agha said as he stood outside the metal gate that controls access to his new home. “What happened to us is now happening to them. This is justice.”
The house is a squat brick and stucco structure with concrete floors and whitewashed walls. It sits behind a brick wall, with a metal gate that closes off the courtyard where Agha’s two small daughters play. There is no furniture, no electricity, no running water.
But to Agha -- and to Salman -- it is his universe.
Shukur Khalif Saud, 35, his wife and three children have left a very similar universe behind. Saud, his extended family and their neighbors -- including Salman -- had been evicted from Khanaqin, run out by the Kurds who had come in from the north to “liberate” the town after Hussein’s regime fell.
This was not a case of rousing families from their beds and forcing them to flee in the night. It was more deliberate and systematic. The peshmerga went from house to house to inform Arabs that they had 24 to 48 hours to leave town. For many, that meant abandoning the only homes they had ever known, or leaving behind lives they had spent decades building.
On some houses, the peshmerga wrote the word giryowa in green paint, a Kurdish word that means “reserved.”
“They knocked on our doors and told us to leave the house,” Saud recalled. “We told them, ‘We don’t have money or gas or cars or anywhere to go.’ They said, ‘That is your problem.’ ”
Now Saud makes his home in an abandoned Iraqi military base about a 90-minute drive southwest of Khanaqin. The weapons stored there have been looted by local youths, who enjoy firing their AK-47s into the air with reckless abandon, day and night. The new fashion in the area is for young men to walk around with looted green military binoculars.
The Arabs may have been moved years ago as part of Hussein’s relocation plan, but for many, their motive was merely to live a better life. Many were teachers, municipal workers and low-level bureaucrats brought in to run the town and to “Arabize” it for the regime.
“I tell you, these houses were distributed to public employees,” said Salman’s 24-year-old son, Saleh. “My father worked in the Ministry of Education. It was my only home.”
Saud and his family are living in a small room on the first floor of the barracks. They swept it out with a piece of cardboard, mopped it down with a rag and water dragged up from an irrigation ditch and set up a gas cooker. His 3-year-old son, Omar, has a bad cough and a runny nose. The child walks barefoot, crying as if in pain. Saud’s 5-year-old daughter, Aseel, exposes a painfully red throat when she yawns. There is no milk for his 18-month old child, Haitham Shukur.
Five families are living in the barracks. Of the group of 35, more than half are children. Their drinking and cooking water is milky white.
Each of the families insists that they were not part of the “Arabization” project and that they are entitled to return to their homes. They don’t know who to take their case to, because they have no idea of who is in charge of their country. They ask why it is that Kurds can live in Baghdad but Arabs are not being allowed to stay in the Kurdish regions.
“This is my deed,” Salman said as he pulled a worn, folded piece of paper from his pocket. He carefully opened the document that bore a seal of the fallen regime. “They came and forced us out. They had weapons.”
They also had weapons when they came for Tarik Khamis. It was Feb. 14, 1998. The local officials told Khamis, a Kurdish schoolteacher, that he had 24 hours to get out of his home here. He rented a truck, loaded it up and moved his family to where he’d been told to go: Fallouja, a Sunni Muslim stronghold west of Baghdad.
The regime moved an Arab into the house his family had lived in for 30 years. The newcomer’s name was Hussein Jamar, a major in the Iraqi army. When the Iraqi regime fell, Jamar piled all his belongings into one room of the house and gave the key to a neighbor. He told the neighbor to give it to Khamis when he returned, and asked the neighbor to ask Khamis to keep an eye on his possessions.
“God is between us,” Khamis said a few days after arriving home. “We will take care of these things for him.”
Munir Qama, 28, is a peshmerga who helped clear out the Arabs. Like other Kurds here, he said the Arab families that were originally from the neighborhood have been allowed to stay. But anyone brought in as part of the “Arabization” had to leave.
“We tried to do it in a good way,” he said, “not a hostile way.”
Kurds are pouring back into the town, and they are setting up tents while the new local authorities look for whatever housing they might be able to make available.
“We have said to them, ‘Is this your original house?’ ” said Bakhtiar, the regional supervisor from the PUK. “They said, ‘No.’ So we said, ‘Then it is right for the Kurds to return.’ ”