"The US and Britain may not want to dwell on the disasters that have befallen Iraq during their occupation but the shanty towns crammed with refugees springing up in Iraq and neighbouring countries are becoming impossible to ignore."

Iraq: One in seven joins human tide spilling into neighbouring countries

Patrick Cockburn in Sulaymaniyah

Published: 30 July 2007 The Independent (UK)

Two thousand Iraqis are fleeing their homes every day. It is the greatest mass exodus of people ever in the Middle East and dwarfs anything seen in Europe since the Second World War. Four million people, one in seven Iraqis, have run away, because if they do not they will be killed. Two million have left Iraq, mainly for Syria and Jordan, and the same number have fled within the country.

Yet, while the US and Britain express sympathy for the plight of refugees in Africa, they are ignoring – or playing down- a far greater tragedy which is largely of their own making.

The US and Britain may not want to dwell on the disasters that have befallen Iraq during their occupation but the shanty towns crammed with refugees springing up in Iraq and neighbouring countries are becoming impossible to ignore.

Even so the UNHCR is having difficulty raising $100m (£50m) for relief. The organisation says the two countries caring for the biggest proportion of Iraqi refugees – Syria and Jordan – have still received “next to nothing from the world community”. Some 1.4 million Iraqis have fled to Syria according to the UN High Commission for Refugees, Jordan has taken in 750 000 while Egypt and Lebanon have seen 200 000 Iraqis cross into their territories.

Potential donors are reluctant to spent money inside Iraq arguing the country has large oil revenues. They are either unaware, or are ignoring the fact that the Iraqi administration has all but collapsed outside the Baghdad Green Zone. The US is spending $2bn a week on military operations in Iraq according to the Congressional Research Service but many Iraqis are dying because they lack drinking water costing a few cents.

Kalawar refugee camp in Sulaymaniyah is a microcosm of the misery to which millions of Iraqis have been reduced.

“At least it is safe here,” says Walid Sha’ad Nayef, 38, as he stands amid the stink of rotting garbage and raw sewage. He fled from the lethally dangerous Sa’adiyah district in Baghdad 11 months ago. As we speak to him, a man silently presents us with the death certificate of his son, Farez Maher Zedan, who was killed in Baghdad on 20 May 2006.

Kalawar is a horrible place. Situated behind a petrol station down a dusty track, the first sight of the camp is of rough shelters made out of rags, torn pieces of cardboard and old blankets. The stench is explained by the fact the Kurdish municipal authorities will not allow the 470 people in the camp to dig latrines. They say this might encourage them to stay.

“Sometimes I go to beg,” says Talib Hamid al-Auda, a voluble man with a thick white beard looking older than his fifty years. As he speaks, his body shakes, as if he was trembling at the thought of the demeaning means by which he feeds his family. Even begging is difficult because the people in the camp are forbidden to leave it on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Suspected by Kurds of being behind a string of house robberies, though there is no evidence for this, they are natural scapegoats for any wrong-doing in their vicinity.

Refugees are getting an increasingly cool reception wherever they flee, because there are so many of them and because of the burden they put on resources. “People here blame us for forcing up rents and the price of food,” said Omar, who had taken his family to Damascus after his sister’s leg was fractured by a car bomb.

The refugees in Kalawar had no option but to flee. Of the 97 families here, all but two are Sunni Arabs. Many are from Sa’adiyah in west Baghdad where 84 bodies were found by police between 18 June and 18 July. Many are young men whose hands had been bound and who had been tortured.

“The majority left Baghdad because somebody knocked on the door of their house and told them to get out in an hour,” says Rosina Ynzenga, who runs the Spanish charity Solidarity International (SIA) which pays for a mobile clinic to visit the camp.

Sulaymaniyah municipality is antagonistic to her doing more. One Kurdish official suggested that the Arabs of Kalawar were there simply for economic reasons and should be given $200 each and sent back to Baghdad.

Mr Nayef, the mukhtar (mayor) of the camp who used to be a bulldozer driver in Baghdad, at first said nobody could speak to journalists unless we had permission from the authorities. But after we had ceremoniously written our names in a large book he relented and would, in any case, have had difficulty in stopping other refugees explaining their grievences.

Asked to list their worst problems Mr Nayef said they were the lack of school for the children, shortage of food, no kerosene to cook with, no money, no jobs and no electricity. The real answer to the question is that the Arabs of Kalawar have nothing. They have only received two cartons of food each from the International Committee of the Red Cross and a tank of clean water.

Even so they are adamant that they dare not return to Baghdad. They did not even know if their houses had been taken over by others.

Abla Abbas, a mournful looking woman in black robes, said her son had been killed because he went to sell plastic bags in the Shia district of Khadamiyah in west Baghdad. The poor in Iraq take potentially fatal risks to earn a little money.

The uncertainty of the refugees’ lives in Kalawar is mirrored in their drawn faces. While we spoke to them there were several shouting matches. One woman kept showing us a piece of paper from the local authority in Sulaymaniyah giving her the right to stay there. She regarded us nervously as if we were officials about to evict her.

There are in fact three camps at Kalawar. Although almost all the refugees are Sunni they come from different places and until a month ago they lived together. But there were continual arguments. The refugees decided that they must split into three encampments: one from Baghdad, a second from Hillah, south of Baghdad, and a third from Diyala, the mixed Sunni-Shia province that has been the scene of ferocious sectarian pogroms.

Governments and the media crudely evaluate human suffering in Iraq in terms of the number killed. A broader and better barometer would include those who have escaped death only by fleeing their homes, their jobs and their country to go and live, destitute and unwanted, in places like Kalawar. The US administration has 18 benchmarks to measure progress in Iraq but the return of four million people to their homes is not among them.

Signs of distress

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Flag-defiling charge ends in fight, arrests
Sheriff’s Office denies allegation deputy assaulted couple

by Mike McWilliams
updated July 26, 2007 11:26 am

Asheville – A couple who said they were protesting the state of the country by flying the U.S. flag upside down with signs pinned to it found themselves in jail following a scuffle with a deputy Wednesday morning.

Mark and Deborah Kuhn were arrested on two counts of assault on a government employee, resisting arrest and a rarely used charge, desecrating an American flag, all misdemeanors. The Kuhns were released from custody Wednesday afternoon.

“This is surreal,” Deborah Kuhn, 52, said moments after her son Mark Stidham paid $1,500 bond to get the couple out of jail.

Arrest reports show Buncombe County Sheriff’s deputy Brian Scarborough went to the Kuhns’ home on 68 Brevard Road about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday to investigate a complaint of an American flag on display after being desecrated.

State law prohibits anyone from knowingly mutilating, defiling, defacing or trampling the U.S. or North Carolina flags. Lt. Randy Sorrells of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office said the Kuhns desecrated the flag by pinning signs to it, not by flying it upside down.

An upside-down flag typically is flown as a distress signal. The Kuhns said they flew it this way not out of disrespect but to symbolize the state of the country.

Deborah Kuhn said the signs pinned to the flag included an explanation on the meaning of an upside-down flag and asked to “help our country.” One of the signs was a photo of President Bush with “Out Now” written on it, they said.

The couple flew the flag for about a week before Wednesday.

Police visits

Deborah Kuhn said an Asheville police officer stopped by last week to make sure the couple was OK, after recognizing the upside-down flag as a distress signal.

Asheville police calls for service records show an officer did go to the house July 18 after a complaint about the upside-down flag. The officer did not issue a citation or file a report.

A couple of days later, Deborah Kuhn said a man dressed in fatigues came to the door to “harass my husband” about the flag. Someone also took photos of the flag, she said.

Sorrells said a resident approached Scarborough while he was on duty and alerted him to the flag. Sorrells said he did not know where the person approached Scarborough or what the deputy was doing.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, Scarborough went to the Kuhns’ home and gave Mark Kuhn a copy of the flag desecration statute. Scarborough told the Kuhns the flag was being displayed illegally.

Although the Kuhns live within the Asheville city limits, Sorrells said the complaint was made to a deputy.

“We have jurisdiction throughout the whole county of Buncombe,” Sorrells said. “We have a citizen that complains to us about a violation of law, we’re bound by oath to act on it.”

Scarborough told Mark Kuhn he was going to be issued a citation and asked for identification. Kuhn refused, slammed the door on the deputy’s hand, breaking the glass pane out of the door and cutting Scarborough’s hand, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Deborah Kuhn said they removed the flag from their front porch after Scarborough threatened to cite them, but they objected to showing Scarborough their IDs, which he needed to write the tickets. Scarborough then broke into their house and came after them, they said.

“He tried to keep us from closing the door, but we managed to get it closed,” Deborah Kuhn said. “We locked the door and he broke the glass to our front door and proceeded to assault my husband, saying, ‘You’re under arrest.’”

The Sheriff’s Office said a struggle ensued when Scarborough followed Kuhn back into the house. At that time, Deborah Kuhn also struck Scarborough in the face, authorities said in arrest reports.

Scarborough called for backup and five squad cars responded, Sorrells said.

Deborah Kuhn said she called 911 and ran into the street screaming for help.

Mark Kuhn said he did not attack Scarborough.

“He came after me, and I fought him back,” Kuhn, 43, said. “After I got out of his hold, I ran outside.”

Rarely enforced

Sorrells said this is the first time he has seen the flag-desecration law enforced. He said it’s a difficult decision for an officer to weigh a resident’s right to free speech against another’s complaint of a law violation.

“I think the officer did the appropriate thing by stating his intention to simply issue a citation and let it be worked out in court,” Sorrells said. “If Mr. Kuhn had simply complied with that request for identification and accepted the citation, we would have all gone about our way, and it could have been worked out in court. Once he assaulted the officer, it escalated very quickly.”

Sorrells said Scarborough suffered some scrapes and cuts to his hand and returned to duty later Wednesday. A message left for Scarborough at the Sheriff’s Office was not immediately returned.

Mark Kuhn, who said he had flown his flag upside down before without any problems, said he plans to fight the charges. The Kuhns each face a maximum 420 days in jail if convicted on all of the charges.

“We are going to do our best to get a civil liberties lawyer from the ACLU,” Kuhn said.

“We are going to take this big time. Officer Scarborough is not going to get away with this.”

The Kuhns said the Sheriff’s Office kept their flag. Sorrells said he had no record of that.