Over the past year the district of Arbat, in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has seen a wave of immigration, with an estimated 16,000 displaced locals from inside Iraq and from Syria seeking shelter here. Although Arbat itself is traditionally home mostly to the Iraqi Kurdish, now there's a wide variety of ethnicities and sects here, including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Syrians, Sunnis, Shiites, Shabaks and Yazidis. As successive groups have come and gone from this small district, south of one of Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest cities, Sulaymaniyah, locals say that Arbat has been a mirror for nationwide events caused by the security crisis and the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
“Since June 2014 we have seen many displaced people come here,” says local store owner, Kawa Muhammad. “They all speak different languages and have different cultures and habits. But the people of Arbat have become used to this and they're dealing with it very well. And the one thing all of the people who do come here have in common is their treatment at the hands of the Islamic State group. Stories of horrors perpetrated were all very similar.”
There are several camps for internally displaced Iraqis in Arbat and the first wave of Iraqi displaced to get to Arbat were Iraqis from the city of Mosul; this was the first major city that the Islamic State, or IS, group controlled in mid-June last year and it continues to be a stronghold for the extremists.
“We didn't really know what was going on in the city,” says Nabil Muhandes, one of the Iraqi Kurdish people who used to live in Mosul. “We heard reports and there was a curfew imposed but by June 10 we knew our city was under the control of the IS group.”
Muhandes then left his home in Mosul and went to Tel Adas, north of Mosul, but this area was also attacked by the IS group. After spending some time in the Ninawa Plain area and in Kirkuk, he has ended up in Arbat.
His story is similar to many others in Arbat. Ali Qanbar is of Shabak ethnicity and he left Mosul in June too; he headed first to Erbil and then Arbat where he ended up staying in one of the empty schools that were first used to house refugees from the Syrian conflict for 20 days; eventually he and his family managed to get a tent in the Arbat displaced persons' camp.
Kamal Yahya, a Shiite Muslim and a Turkman, didn’t get to Arbat until the end of September last year. He too left his home in Mosul and then he and his family travelled widely in the area, trying to find shelter. They stopped in Tal Afar where IS mortars killed at least 14 members of his tribe, then passed through Sinjar, Rabia and the Mosul Dam and Tal Adas areas before finding rest in Arbat.
Murad Matto, who is originally from Sinjar tells a similar story. He recounts how his family had to travel, hungry and tired and very hot, through to Syria before re-entering Iraq in Dohuk, part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The displaced in Arbat are not all Iraqis either. A large number of Syrian Kurdish refugees left Kobani during the fighting between the IS group and Syrian militias and have also ended up here.
The last wave of displaced to end up in Arbat consists mainly of locals from the provinces of Anbar and Salahaddin, provinces inhabited by a mostly Sunni Arab majority. “Most of the people of the Yathrib area fled their homes last November,” explains Abbas Khalaf, a leader from the Albu Hishma tribe. “People escaped over the Tigris river using small boats. A number of children were drowned. Then we went to the Hawija district where we had to wait 17 days until we were allowed into Kirkuk [which was under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military]. Then we came to Arbat.”
Generally the different groups get on well, says Jia Hussein, an official with the Iraqi government's Ministry of Displacement and Migration. “They manage to co-exist peacefully because they have all had similarly painful experiences that have a single cause: the IS group. And they have all escaped from the IS group because of the group's injustice and cruelty.”