Running in Your Own Land: Baharka Refugee Camp


By: Jessica Gehring

More than 41 million people are currently fleeing conflict or persecution around the world. They flee because their homes are no longer a safe place to live and their governments can not provide them with protection. But what if you’re on the run in your own land?

They’re homesick in their own country. They’re angry, they’re vulnerable, they’re Internally displaced persons (IDPs). Unlike refugees, IDPs have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries. In refugee camp Baharka there are mainly Iraqi refugees, fleeing from Islamic State (IS) terror militia which are occupying their hometowns. The camp near the Kurdish capital Arbil in Iraqi-Kurdistan, which is not an official camp by the government in Baghdad, is now their hometown – canvas covering a ten square kilometre small room under a concrete building is their home. The neighbors are just a thin meadow away, also refugees. But they are lucky compared to other refugees, protected from the always shining sun below the building. Refugees are mainly living in tents standing on rubble and sand. Because of the heat inside they are trying to find shade beside. “It’s so hard to make them believe that they are refugees now,” said Rebaz Baban, a 30-year old worker for the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Some of the IDP’s are Palestinians, Turkmen or Syrian – they fled to Iraq, now they’re on the run again.

1700 families are living in Baharka Camp. More than 3500 people in total. This may not seem very numerous but in consideration of the fact that the available space is little, it is. Kahim* is a student. He fled from Mosul because of the IS attacks that occurred a few weeks ago. Mosul was taken overnight, leading to a massive exodus from residents who fear for their lives because they didn’t want to live under the regime of the “Islamic State”. He came with around 30 members of his family, together they have not more than ten square meters. Kahim is friendly, he’s not angry towards the west, he’s not angry towards anybody. “Even though it is hard to live here, everywhere it is better than in Iraq,” he said. Most of all he misses his house and his studies. In Baharka Refugee Camp he cannot continue learning. More precisely, he cannot do anything.

Children from three to 14 are going to school once a day from nine to ten. Drawing, doing handicrafts, doing some arithmetic – the main issue is being busy. They really enjoy going to school, they say. Everything is better than the daily routine of misery lying in every corner of the camp.

IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government. As citizens, they retain all of their rights and protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law. But the refugees are just a number here. For 100 tents outside is one standpipe. Most of the money for the daily needs of the camp are coming from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the central government in Baghdad is not providing any assistance, in  a financial or material way — a problem occurring on many levels in the politics from Baghdad towards Arbil.

When Rebaz Baban is showing around the camp, he wants people to document what horrible conditions they see. “It’s hard to work here every day. It’s so hard,” he said while passing by a young woman sitting with a thin, crying baby outside of a tent, trying to shake the child into sleep. She yells, “My other children are playing in the dirt. We’re getting toys, but not for each children.”

Rebaz Baban gazes at the ground. “We need any kind of help from any organization that is possible,” Baban said. The population of Kurdistan-Iraq has less, but they shall share – that is what their president, Mustafa Barzani, told them. That is what the Kurdish community members are willing to do. The central government in Baghdad does not provide any financial means to the Kurds to help them with above two million refugees.

More and more people are coming in daily. “It is hard, to get that under control,” Baban said. Just as keeping all the IDPs under control. The shortage of space and the lack of tents makes even a little bit of privacy nearly impossible.

Kahim wants to show the little things he has inside his canvas: a few carpets on the floor, two mattresses – and his father. A rather short, but strong man.  Arsaf wants to fight. He wants to support the Peshmerga on the battle front: “I want to fight for my country, but I can’t. I don’t have any weaponry, I don’t even have a gun.” If he could decide by himself he would rather want money for weapons than for his family. The whole country has changed their focus on the battle front – even the refugees.

*Name modified for protection of the refugees.

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