As we approached the border, we went through more and more military checkpoints. The usual smiling welcome disappeared and was replaced by careful examination of my passport and the letter of passage I received from the provincial media relations minister. Finally, we hit a checkpoint where the AK-toting pesh merga (Kurdish fighters) didn’t care about the letter of passage. They eyed my cameras suspiciously and sent me off to see the general.
The general was so gracious, he offered me the national drink – strong Kurdish tea served in a small gracefully curved glass with a thick layer of sugar in the bottom. After some discussion with his staff, permission was granted and off we went.
It’s hard to say Behar is a village. Half the town is in ruins from some other war and the other half has few residents. From the appearance of the herd dog roaming the area, I suspect most of the people are goat herders. There was a cluster of taxis at the foot of a hill, and then I looked up and saw them.
Lots of refugees, clutching the few possessions they had, holding babies and dragging suitcases. They crested the hill and for the first time, looked on Iraqi Kurdistan. They had spent the night across the border with no harassment from Syrian troops, and then walked the four kilometers from a small Syrian village to the equally small Iraqi village.
After a cursory and very polite check-over by the pesh merga , they walked the last few meters into Behar. There they met relatives who had already escaped or hired a taxi to take them to the Domiz refugee camp. The border crossing is only open from 9am to 2pm –I don’t know why – but in one 30 minute period, Ramadhan counted ninety four people passing by us. Round it down to ninety people and that equates to 180 per hour or 900 people per day. That explains why the Domiz camp has grown from approximately 28,000 people when I arrived to the 32,585 people counted on November 12th – and that was six days ago. I assume the faster pace of evacuation is because of Turkey’s reluctance to take any more Kurds in as refugees. Contrary to the Domiz camp where refugees come and go at will, once a refugee enters a Turkish camp, they are not allowed to leave. Word gets around and the Kurds head to where they are welcome – and that means Iraqi Kurdistan.
It’s a long walk, especially if you have to carry a small child as well as your luggage. People have truly had to decide what is precious to them because they cannot carry everything. The Syrian village is at the end of the road in this photo, way up on the ridge top in the upper right. As I stood there watching the exodus, I wondered what it would be like to leave your home wondering if you would ever see it again, along with the pictures of Grandma, the silverware given to you at your wedding or the dog who has been a member of the family for nine years. Neither did refugees know what camp living would be like. The danger and the fear must be sticky to the touch to cause a family to leave home and go towards the unknown.
Why do they leave home?
This woman and her husband Faisal have seven children. There had been more shooting in their home city of Hasici, but when two school children were killed by stray gunfire, the couple decided to leave. They will go home when Bashar Assad is dead.
Abdullah is a young man from Dargecit. He used to be a university student in Damascus, but the school closed. He has no job, but even if he had money he would have no food because almost all the shops are closed in his home city. He is also afraid the army will draft him and he does not want to fight his own people. He too will return when the civil war is over. Some few swim against the tide and return to Syria.
During the time we counted ninety four people coming into Kurdistan, we also counted twelve going the other way. One family of five was going back temporarily. The wife’s father had died and they wanted to get back for the funeral, but then they would return to Kurdistan. They didn’t want their picture taken either. But the other five were young men. They were restless and bored and could not find work in Dohuk. When we were held up at the checkpoint waiting for the general’s clearance, I’d seen about ten young men on the way back. There is some suspicion that young men may have been trained in secret by the pesh merga and were returning to Syria to fight the Assad regime, but that is all it is now – a suspicion.
And still they keep on coming. The last United Nations report on the situation indicated there were over 346,000 refugees from Syria – and that doesn’t count those who are internally displaced. The misery and the pain continues.