ALEPPO, Syria — Hundreds of Turkmen families traveled from Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq and arrived in Syria along the border with Turkey near Azaz in the northern Aleppo countryside. These families fled the fierce battles the Iraqi army and security forces are waging against the Islamic State (IS). The displaced people crossed hundreds of kilometers from the west side of Mosul to reach the Turkish-Syrian border in order to enter Turkey.
This wave of displaced Iraqi Turkmens from Tal Afar began on Nov. 18 as Iraqi forces approached the city and took control of Tal Afar Airport as well as several surrounding villages to the south of the city.
Turkmens coming from Tal Afar, who have been arriving in Azaz since early December 2016, could not enter Turkish territories because the border crossings with Syria were closed in early April 2015. It became harder to cross the borders illegally since the Turkish government took several measures to limit the flow of refugees, including building an isolating wall. Families had nowhere else to go and could do nothing but wait under tough humanitarian conditions.
Al-Monitor visited the spots where displaced people from Tal Afar settled near Azaz, north of Aleppo. Some displaced people who could afford it rented houses in Azaz, while others settled in the collective al-Shabiba camp near Azaz, where the humanitarian conditions are not good. Most of Tal Afar’s displaced people, however, are lodged in Ikadah camp, which was built in December to accommodate them. The IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation set up this camp with financial support from the Turkish Religious Endowment Directorate, both of which provide food and aid to the camp’s residents.
According to Mohammad Haj Ali, the head of Azaz’s local council, the total number of Iraqi displaced people hailing from Tal Afar is estimated at 12,000 — 7,000 of whom live in Ikadah camp while others are distributed in Azaz and al-Shabiba camp.
Mahmoud Mohammad Hayali’s family arrived at Ikadah camp on Jan. 10. Hayali is married with five kids — four girls and a boy. None of them are older than 10. Hayali did not know that fate would force him and his family to leave their house in Tal Afar and live in a small tent next to 102 other tents erected between olive groves, at a distance of 800 meters (a half mile) to the north of the Syrian Ikadah town, which is under the armed opposition’s grip along the Syrian-Turkish borders.
The administration of Ikadah camp did not allow Al-Monitor to enter and talk to Hayali in his tent for security reasons, as per opposition-affiliated members of the security battalion who guard the camp. Hayali said that reporters were not allowed in the camp due to the bad services and the miserable conditions under which thousands of Iraqi displaced people live. The camp’s administration does not want this situation broadcast in the media.
Hayali accompanied Al-Monitor outside the camp and spoke about their suffering. He said, “Our lives were peaceful. I made a living out of car maintenance, and my family and I had a decent life in Tal Afar. But everything changed since IS took control of the city mid-2014, imposed a strict system on civilians and suspended all forms of economic activity.”
Hayali’s family, like many other Turkmen families in the city, stood their ground despite the deteriorating conditions. But when the battles with the Iraqi army became imminent, they fled. Their journey began and lasted for more than a month and a half.
Hayali added that the dream of salvation was not realized. He said, “The camp is unlivable. There are no services or bathrooms, and the tents are built between puddles of mud.”
Turkmen families faced many difficulties to reach Azaz during their long journey from Tal Afar. They suffered all sorts of extortion and were forced to pay the organization’s armed men to permit them to leave Tal Afar, by crossing the IS-gripped regions in Syria.
Imad Mahmoud Abadi and his family had a tough journey. Abadi told Al-Monitor, “The journey from Tal Afar to the northern Aleppo countryside took us around a month and was paved with danger. We first reached Raqqa where we stayed for a week. Then the hardest part began. We relied on smugglers to take us to Azaz in the Aleppo countryside. The journey cost me $5,000, and we crossed long distances on foot. Our survival was a miracle.”
He added, “Our suffering was far from over upon reaching Azaz. People took advantage of our being in need. Prices are soaring, and I had to pay around $500 for a one-week stay in a hotel, not to mention the food and water expenses.”
He added that the high living cost in Azaz pushed him and his family to seek alternatives. He headed to Ikadah town, which is 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Azaz, but was disappointed when he was told there were no additional tents for more families. He had to stay in the village’s mosque.
“We hope the Turkish government will allow us to enter its territories. Only then will our suffering end. We feel stuck, and there is nothing we can do about it.” Turkmens also refuse to return to Tal Afar even if the war ends, as they fear sectarian retaliation from the Popular Mobilization Units.