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Battling from their refugee tents: Meet the Kurdish peshmergas fighting to take back their homes

Peshmerga living in the Baharka refugee camp in northern Iraq are fighting to retake their homes, insisting they will not stop until they succeed.
An officer speaks to Kurdish Peshmerga forces during a training session by coalition forces on how to fight street battles and defend the front lines in a training camp in the outskirts of Arbil, north of Iraq, March 24, 2015.  REUTERS/Azad Lashkari - RTR4UN6E

ERBIL, Iraq — Surrounded by a sea of dry fields, the Baharka refugee camp in northern Iraq looks exactly as one might imagine: dusty, poor and swept daily by scorching winds. Most of the souls wandering around with the sun at its peak and the heat overwhelming are careless children whose smiles are a reminder that rubbish also can make a fitting soccer ball. From time to time, when duty calls, a man in a dark green uniform also steps outside his tent.

Sahad Hala has just shaved. He is not supposed to report to the front line for another week, but recent clashes near his military base, less than 2 miles from an Islamic State (IS) position, might force him to deploy sooner than scheduled. He is prepared, just in case he gets the call. At first glance, Hala could be mistaken for a member of the camp's security team, but someone guarding a camp of tents provided by the UN refugee agency is unlikely to need his razor at work.

Since IS’ military breakthroughs last summer, an estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq and refugees from Syria have fled to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan. Near Erbil, the capital of this autonomous region, the Baharka camp shelters nearly 4,000 people, mainly from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, but also from the Christian stronghold of Qaraqosh. After these cities fell to IS between June and August 2014, white tents and makeshift shelters became home for 731 families who fled, sometimes overnight.

Among the teachers, electricians and greengrocers, Baharka has also welcomed at least a dozen members of the peshmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. For these homeless soldiers, the war against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s organization and self-proclaimed caliphate became personal when the jihadis took their city. “We want Mosul back,” Hala bluntly told Al-Monitor. Since the beginning of the conflict, the 45-year-old Kurdish officer from Qaraqosh has served at Bashiqa Mountain, a base overlooking IS-held territories in Mosul.

Saed Kakaei, adviser to the minister of peshmerga forces, told Reuters in mid-September that the number of Kurdish soldiers who have fled the battlefield is “concerning.” That said, some of the fighters who had to abandon their homes are still battling the people who forced them out.

Hala’s eldest child, Ali, also decided to join the peshmerga. “Sometimes we meet each other on the front line,” the proud father said. Ali, who will next be deployed in four days, told Al-Monitor, “I left school and joined the peshmerga to fight for my land and my state.” Unlike his father, the 20-year-old does not need to shave.

To shelter his family of 10 children, Sahad Hala was given two tents and a small concrete shed for use as a private kitchen. The level of comfort is rudimentary, and physical proximity is reminiscent of military barracks. “It’s so difficult to live here. It’s not like before, when I had my own house,” Hala said. As he spoke, one of his younger sons waved his shirt to create a refreshing breeze. Their portable air cooler has been off since the previous day, after a power cut, forcing them to find creative ways to counter the greenhouse-like effect of their tent to keep cool.

Baharka is an open camp, as opposed to those sheltering Syrian refugees, who need a residency card to leave. The freedom of movement that Baharka IDPs enjoy does not, however, allow them to bring their vehicles inside because of the camp management's concern about car bombs. It is a rule that not all peshmerga fighters have complied with, arguing that they need their cars close by so they don’t have to cross the camp with all their military equipment on their back.

Baharka is guarded by police officers, and the relationship between them and the peshmerga fighters can be tense, as the latter do not always recognize the authority of the former. The camp management, new to dealing with the peshmergas, is still looking for acceptable ways to regulate life inside a camp sheltering civilians as well as military forces.

In partnership with the Erbil governorate, camp managers in the region are working on a gun-safety plan called Gun Locker, which aims to track the circulation of weapons. “Every camp will have a locker, not only for weapons but also for uniforms, which won’t be allowed inside anymore,” said camp manager Ahmad Abdo, who wants Baharka to remain a “civilian area.”

As a refugee himself, the Syrian manager believes that the sensitive situation in which the Kurdish fighters now live could fuel turmoil. “The IDPs, they had cars, houses, etc., but today they have nothing. So now every little problem can grow, especially when guns are involved,” Abdo said.

Ali Hala, who had been unaware of the gun locker policy, said he would not observe it. “I will never leave my weapon there. My gun is my honor,” he said. His father had given him his AK-47 when he turned 18.

Like all other soldiers enlisted with the peshmerga, Sahad and Ali Hala had to buy their weapons and ammunition at their own expense. Since the beginning of the war last summer, they say the demand for weaponry has dramatically increased as have prices. At the gun shop where they usually go, two bullets now cost $4. “My salary is 500,000 dinars [some $433] a month, and I spend at least 150,000 [$130] on ammunition every month,” Ali said, gripping his rifle’s fully loaded magazine.

According to Ali Dahoud, another Kurdish fighter living in Baharka, military rules stipulate that every peshmerga fighter must always carry 120 bullets. “If I don’t have enough, the first time they will excuse me, because I am a refugee. The second time, they will take money out of my salary,” said Dahoud, who has been a peshmerga member for seven years. These days, he can rely on his fellow homeless fighters to give him ammunition when in need.

In addition to expenses for weaponry, the IDPs must also consider the cost of gas to get to their military base. A round trip costs 50,000 dinars ($43). “My house was near the duty station. I could have lunch at home,” Dahoud said. Now that he lives in Baharka, more than 50 miles from Mosul, he spends more money on transportation than before. Once these costs are subtracted, not much is left to take care of his family.

When Sahad and Ali were asked whether they would consider quitting the army to find work that would allow them to afford housing and leave Baharka, both responded in the negative. “I will never quit the peshmerga,” insisted Sahad. “Not under any circumstance.”

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