It is 12:45pm and the full force of the midday sun has already engulfed the rooftops and streets of Sulaimaniyeh within a steamy haze. The UNHCR representative, who, for security purposes I have given the name Omar, has just arrived at my place of residence. All sources of electricity—the city’s six-hour allotment, the community generator, and the house generator that comes on for selected periods when all else fails—are currently out of commission. Omar wipes sweat from his forehead as we sit in the darkened office where I am interviewing him. Following what I believe is the customary gender-related politeness, Omar is gently attempting to ward me off from visiting the Qalawa camp where 97 internally displaced (IDP) families who fled the violence of their home communities are now temporarily ensconced.
“The situation is not tolerable for you to stay there,” Omar warns. “We should not go there after 1pm because there is a very bad smell because they don’t have latrines and garbage is everywhere. We barely got permission from the governor’s office to do things on a temporary basis, like garbage collection and water distribution. The living conditions cannot be standed. It is very difficult.”
“Let’s go now,” I say, not knowing if I will get another opportunity to visit Qalawa before leaving Iraq. “I don’t mind if it smells. I’ve smelled bad things before.” Omar smiles and nods, “For me, too, it is okay.”
Hopping into the standard white SUV vehicle used by most NGOs (nongovernmental organization), an obvious and perfect target for terrorists in any other part of Iraq, I am once again reminded of the inherent safety here in the north. The drive through the trafficked streets lined with shops and new construction—signs of Sulaimaniyeh’s building boom that is severely taxing its infrastructure—is sharply contrasted by what at first looks like a leveled, rubble strewn pre-construction site. A moonscape sorts, of huge proportions. Closer inspection reveals a straggly line of makeshift tents tucked off in one corner of the property surrounded by heaps of trash and human waste. A singular “home” on the outskirts of this corner and lying in the shadow of a dusty four-story condominium block has been constructed entirely from gathered stones and pieces of broken cinderblock, scrap metal pieces, refrigerator doors and the like, empty and rusted industrial drums, and other trashed items.
Across the street inside the unofficial IDP camp of Qalawa, the “homes” are much more fragile. They have skins consisting of blankets and pieces of tarp wrapped over wood pole skeletons. Depending on the number and size of family members able to help with construction, some are bigger and better constructed than others. “These families have been living here since September 2006, almost a year ago,” says Omar. “They are illegal according to the authorities who say they are occupying private land. So it is considered a makeshift camp. Not a real IDP camp.”
As is all things regarding Iraq, the IDP situation in Sulaimaniyeh is complex. A contradiction in terms according to media reports that Sunni and Shiite are at each other’s throats, Qawala consists of a mixture of Sunni and Shiite (and at least one gypsy family), educated and uneducated living together peacefully under a vague and uncertain umbrella of safety. Termed “very vulnerable” in UNHCR lingo, these refugees have traveled from Baghdad, Diyala, and Baquba to escape insurgent and sectarian violence. To gain admittance here, all had to produce death certificates to prove that at least one family member had been killed in some violent way. While Sulaimaniyan authorities allow fleeing families and individuals entrance to the region, the majority of IDPs entering the northern Iraq’s governorates have property or family to go to. Other IDPs are not as fortunate.
Like a nomadic tribe, the families at Qalawa are part of this smaller percentage of IDPs. The earliest arrivals set up camp on what looked like open space to them. Others, catching word of a safe place to go via the ethers of the IDP communication system, continue to trickle in and take up residence. However, unlike nomadic tribes who use accessible water sources as a criterion for setting up camp, these families, perhaps more desperate in nature, lived without water in the early days of their arrival here. According to Omar, after many meetings between international relief agencies and the governor’s office, permission was recently given to the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide water. Another NGO, Solidarity, has mobile medical teams visiting Qalawa and is also coordinating garbage collection.