While writing this column, the news broke that Turkey had murdered a commander of the YBŞ, the Yezidi self-defense force, with a drone strike. Marwan Badal Haji had been part of the YBŞ since the genocide against his people in August 2014. It is hard not to draw parallels with Kurdish communities elsewhere in Iraq, who are also forced to defend themselves against fascist agression, but don’t get the chance to really have something to say about the way their towns and villages are governed. There is something deeply humiliating about that.
In the last couple of weeks, ISIS has been very active in Iraq, and not coincidentally mainly in the so-called ‘disputed territories’. Last weekend the Kurdish village of Libehan was even evacuated because ISIS came too close: the people had tried to defend themselves but neither the Iraqi army nor the Kurdish peshmerga came to their rescue. Luckily they were later able to return to their villages, but how safe do they actually feel now? And how safe do the inhabitants of towns and villages in the northern parts of Diyala Province and Makhmur district feel with ISIS cells constantly planning to attack?
Not everybody knows what ‘disputed territories’ refers to exactly, so maybe it’s good to basically explain the context. When the new Iraqi constitution, in which the Kurdistan Region was officially recognised, was implemented, in 2005, there were disagreements between Kurdistan’s government in Erbil and the federal government in Baghdad about where the borders of the Kurdistan Region should be drawn. They agreed that a referendum would be held in these areas to which both governments laid claims, so that the people could decide whether they wanted to be governed by Baghdad or by Erbil. The referendum was going to be held latest by 2007, but it never happened, and it doesn’t look like it will ever be held.
These areas became disputed because of the arabisation of Kurdish areas by the Ba’ath regime between the 1960s and 2003.
But that reality was also one of the reasons the referendum was never held: Erbil and Baghdad could not agree who would be eligible to vote. Would majority Arab towns that had been fully Kurdish until the 1960s come under Baghdad’s rule because of the demographic policies of Saddam Hussein? That wouldn’t be fair, but it would also not be fair to not give Arab communities a right to vote generations after they had (often forcibly) moved to their new homes.
It is exactly these disputed territories that are now extra vulnerable to the threat of ISIS, and Turkey. Take the town of Liheban, officially belonging to Kirkuk, the biggest city in the disputed territories. Until 1976, it was part of Makhmour district, which belonged to Erbil Province, so I read on an expert’s Twitter feed. In 1976, the Ba’ath regime separated Liheban and twenty-one other Kurdish villages from Makhmour, and added them to Kirkuk, to which they still belong today.
Kirkuk was heavily arabized, which adds an important dimension to the way the people there had to defend themselves against Daesh and eventually had to leave. If they hadn’t been able to return quickly, the arabisation would have progressed even further, even that many years after the Ba’ath dictatorship ended.
Something similar is happening in Shengal, with a community even more vulnerable and more marginalised and suppressed than the Sunni Kurds in the Kurdistan Region: the Yezidis. The peshmerga did not protect them in 2014, and now the Iraqi army has taken over the governing of the region again, but it is not very invested in keeping the Yezidis safe. Turkey keeps carrying out air strikes against bases of the YBŞ and killing its members, who are survivors of the genocide, and Baghdad is not speaking out against it, and the Kurdistan Regional Government isn’t standing up for the Yezidis either.
None of the powers that want to reign over the disputed territories, want to actually take responsibility for the people there. It’s about power, about oil, about controlling the border (with Syria, close to Shengal). But if Daesh attacks, either now or back in 2014, the people feel so abandoned that they resort to forming their own militias to protect themselves. But they are not officially allowed to protect themselves with arms. The YBŞ was forced to become part of the Iraqi army although they keep some level of autonomy, and the people in Libehan are supposed to trust the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga again now that they have returned to their homes.
The Ba’ath years are over, but then again, they are not and keep defining the peoples’ lives. The genocide started in 2014 and still thousands of Yezidis are missing, and with Turkey’s bombs the genocide is literally continuing, making the community and region more vulnerable to Daesh again too.
It’s like a divorcing couple that is fighting over the custody of their children. Both sides claim they are the best equipped, but are so busy fighting each other that they don’t see that the ones they claim to care about are suffering and surrounded by dangers that endanger their lives. It’s traumatising, and deeply humiliating. ISIS and Turkey are laughing very, very hard.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.