I recently returned from northern Iraq, which has become Kurdistan, an autonomous region with little connection to the government in Baghdad, except the currency and the automobile license plates. Kurdistan is what capitalists dream about – a “glorious mess of economic activity.” The Kurds, free of Iraqi central control and dysfunctional government, have turned their region into a large boom town with new construction everywhere, foreign multinationals competing for the oil and gas, and a population confident in the future. It is not an exaggeration to state that in the coming years, Kurdistan will become a sovereign nation.
But outside of the northern city of Duhok, our hosts from the University of Duhok took us to a Syrian refugee camp run by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. 70,000 desperate people living in crowded tents with no heat, little electricity, scarce food and no sewage system. Everyday, hundreds if not thousands of the Syrians, mostly Kurds, arrive at the camp from nearby Syria to escape the war and seek asylum in Kurdistan. The camp stretches for as far as the eye can see.
Many of the refugees have that vacant gaze that comes from no sleep, no food and no hope. I talked with a family of eight who live in one tent. The children, because they are children, play in the refuse of the camp and still have faint smiles on their faces; the adults, though, know that they might be stuck in this camp for months if not years. Some find jobs in Duhok and pay for cabs which line up outside the camp to take the refugees to work in the city; most however are stuck without employment and live on the meager handouts of the UN, the US and the European Union.
One of the more disturbing sights was the long line of people trying to convince Kurdish officials that they should be permitted into the region as political refugees. They hold up papers and argue with officials as they push and shove to get to the front of the line. Most of the Syrians, however, just mill around the camp with nothing to do but wait for the war to end, allowing them to return to what is certain to be damaged homes and damaged futures.
What we hear about the war in Syria is the enormous destruction of the country as the rebels fight on against the inhumane government of President Assad and his Alewite minority. But visiting the refugee camp brought home to me the real meaning of the war, the human tragedy of losing everything.