Kurds and Displaced Arabs Compete for Land

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June 13, 2003

Kurds and Displaced Arabs Compete for Land


NEAR BASHIQA, Iraq, June 12 In a sun-scorched field shorn of its barley crop, Suleiman Edbas Ibrahim, an Arab farmer, was already worrying about winter.

He, his wife and their nine children were recently left without a house. They are among hundreds of Arab families displaced by Kurds, who were driven from the area during Iraq's most sweeping ethnic cleansing campaign. The campaign took place over 30 years, but began here in 1975.

Since the war, Kurds have begun to return to their original farmland and homes in Iraq's north. Arabs are now migrating back to lands in the center, south and west of Iraq. About 100 villages have been affected, said Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who is now in north Iraq working on the issue.

But not everyone has a home or land to go back to. Mr. Ibrahim, for example, came from the Al Jazeera desert in Iraq's west. The Iraqi regime ordered his entire extended family to resettle here on Kurd lands. They got modest compensation for their houses, and then were moved to villages here. Nothing is left to go back to, he said.

"Let's be honest, we didn't come on our own," said Mr. Ibrahim, sitting beside his tent with his children sitting around him. "The government forced us to come and forced the Kurds to leave. That's the reality."

American officials acknowledge the problem, but say they are powerless to solve it generally until a national policy is put into place that would handle all the land claims equally. Until then, military officers have been working on the ground, brokering individual agreements between Arabs and Kurds.

"It is a serious problem," said Capt. Katrina Bryant, who runs the Internally Displaced Peoples team in the American civil affairs office in Mosul. Her advice for Arabs with nowhere to go, she said, was, "Just be patient and wait until we can handle this legally."

But Mr. Ibrahim, and about 50 other families from the village he was forced to leave, said he was tired of waiting. His baby girl died three weeks ago, he said, from heat stroke. He has been selling his sheep, one by one, to get money for food. He drives his 1976 Toyota pickup half an hour to the nearest city to buy food and water for his family.

"When it rains, we get wet. I don't care about politics or democracy. I don't have a place for my family to live. Now is summer. In winter, we cannot stay here."

Homeless Arab families here are hard to spot. They do not live in vast tent cities. Most have sheep and must live far from other tents to give them room to graze. Nearby, in what used to be a resort area called Shalalat, between 20 and 30 families are living in an abandoned store, and in tents next to an amusement park.

"The needs of the displaced are hard to meet because they are so widely dispersed," said Mr. Bouckaert. "Many of the families are in a desperate situation, with no clean water and sick children."

An hour's drive north along the highway is the village Mr. Ibrahim has been forced to leave. The village, Chamrash, is on a high hill with a view of purple mountains. Mr. Ibrahim's large mud house is perched on the highest point in the village. It has had electricity for several years, since he struck a deal with the local power company.

The Kurdish family that now lives in the house freely acknowledges that it is not theirs. During the war, Mr. Ibrahim took his family to safer territory. When he returned, the Kurdish family was living there. They flipped a coin to decide who would own it.

The Kurds say their house was destroyed in 1975 by the Iraqi government. Hayat Ismail, the wife of the Kurdish farmer, recalled being driven from her home in Chamrash. Iraqi soldiers came during the day, and loaded them into trucks. She bore all 12 of her children in a village far from Chamrash, the place she called home.

"They beat us," she recalled of the deportation. "It was the year of my marriage."

Land disputes here were foreseen by relief organizations long before the war. Mr. Bouckaert criticized war planners for arriving in the north without a plan for untangling claims.

"The real failure is that the claims process is not in place," he said. "You are just dealing with Band-Aid solutions, with coalition forces saying, `Please stay put.' If the Arabs feel their claims weren't fairly addressed, you'll be left with a lot of bitterness at the end of the day."

This week Mr. Ibrahim's family is occupied with bringing in the harvest. The coalition forces have negotiated an agreement for them to receive half of the barley and wheat grown by the Arabs. Mr. Ibrahim has all but given up on his half, mainly because he does not trust the Kurds, now on the land, to divide it evenly.

In other regions, American soldiers patrol the sky and ground to ensure a fair division.

The Kurds said Mr. Ibrahim came to talk to them on Friday. He came to get a mattress and other miscellaneous items he had left four tires, and several tractor parts. The families were civil to one another. But tension hummed behind their words.

"His wife was crying," said Ms. Ismail. "She said, `We don't have a place to stay.' She said they were living in a tent."

"They were lying," she said.

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