Driving away from Irbil, we leave behind cranes and vast construction sites which, the advertising hoardings proclaim, promise future buildings worthy of the Emirates, luxury hotels built to attract investors and traffic jams... For twenty minutes we follow a wide two-lane road, then we abandon the Irbil-Mosul artery and head towards Kawergosk. The scenery is arid. We remember that a few kilometres north of here, Paul-Emile Botta, the nineteenth-century French archaeologist, found the massive winged bulls of Khorsabad which now have pride of place in the Mesopotamian gallery of the Louvre. We realise that this war torn area once witnessed one of the greatest battles in history, the Battle of Gaugamela during which the young Alexander decimated Darius’s army.
The road snakes along the crests of low hills then we slow down and are brought back to the present with a jolt: the first checkpoint. Since the bomb attack in Irbil on 29th September 2013, the Kurdistan authorities have been afraid that the Al Nusra Front (a Jihadist group affiliated to Al Qaeda) would take advantage of the waves of refugees to infiltrate the country and export the conflict into Kurdistan. Until now this northern enclave of the country has been by far the most peaceful part of the new Republic of Iraq. While Bagdad, Kirkuk and Mosul are ravaged by a war between the Sunnis and the Shiites that is only intensifying as the spring 2014 elections approach, the autonomous region of Kurdistan still believes in its own luck, its economic growth and its dream of independence. Seen from Europe, it is hard to grasp the complexity of events playing out in this part of the world: the Syrian conflict, in which two million people (10% of the population) have fled the country, has aggravated an already precarious political situation, with the Iraqi Kurds led by Masoud Barzani trying progressively to secure their independence from Bagdad.
"A sort of half basin of land, a sea of white tents, as far as the eye can see, laid out in a simple, perfectly aligned grid"
We continue on our way, along the narrowing road. From the top of a hill, as we turn the final bend, the camp suddenly appears. There in a sort of half basin of land, a sea of white tents, as far as the eye can see, laid out in a simple, perfectly aligned grid with barbed wire around the outside. We are still in Iraqi Kurdistan but we are now entering a different place, a different world: Kawergosk Camp.
How does somewhere become a camp? Why did someone decide it should be here at Kawergosk that the Syrian Kurds could be accommodated? What was here before?
The eye is instantly drawn to three or four permanent buildings right in the heart of the camp. They are farms. Families live there, in amongst the refugees. In August they saw some 10,000 people arrive in a few days. Now they live in the middle of an area surrounded by barbed wire. They have started negotiations with the authorities for an expropriation with compensation but, until the issue is resolved, they get on with their lives amid crowds of tents. Here we witness scenes that defy logic: although access to the camp is tightly monitored and the area is surrounded by fences, a twelve-year-old girl opens a gate in the fence without the guards saying a word, and she lets in a hundred sheep. Coming and going is obviously easier for sheep than for men… At first we thought these aberrations were symptomatic of the haste with which the authorities had to cope with the influx of refugees, but we were wrong. It is more complicated than that. These inhabitants who were here before the camp existed are refugees themselves. Twenty years ago Saddam Hussein’s regime drove them off their land because they were Kurds. With the passing years they gradually settled. History is repeating itself on the same plot of land, twenty years on. Yesterday’s Kurds driven out by Saddam Hussein, those who escaped the gassings in the north, now watch today’s Kurds driven away by Bashar al-Assad’s bombs. It is as if this little tract of land between these two hills were only here for this: watching a succession of people displaced by history.
"In the endless sequence of ordeals that make up the history of the Kurdish people, the Iraqi Kurds are taking in their Syrian brothers."
And today, in the endless sequence of ordeals that make up the history of the Kurdish people, the Iraqi Kurds are taking in their Syrian brothers. The former are fighting to secure their independence, the latter fleeing a land convulsed by war. Kawergosk is burdened with all of this, and the land here must be heavily salted from all the tears shed by those arriving now and those who came twenty years ago. Walking up and down the camp’s alleyways, we often see the Kurdish flag – a sun with twenty-one rays – flying over tents. It is unlikely that a great state of Kurdistan will rise up any time soon, but there are dreams afoot of one day seeing a confederation of independent provinces comprising Iraqi Kurdistan, Syrian Kurdistan, Turkish Kurdistan and Iranian Kurdistan. All this is being played out here today, in a place that these people forgotten by history hope they can one day finally call “their land”.