The holiday season has yet to begin, but hotels in the mountain resort towns of Iraq’s Kurdistan region are already fully booked.
The patrons are not tourists but refugees who have fled conflict in the country’s arid Sunni Arab heartland for the relative safety of its autonomous north, where Kurds run their own affairs.
Shaqlawa may seem an unlikely refuge, but the resort town’s population has swollen by almost a half since the start of the year. On the main street of the town, crowded with construction sites, motels and guest houses, the newly opened “Falluja Kebab Restaurant” is testimony to its new residents.
It is no small irony in a country with a historic enmity between Sunni Arabs and Kurds that residents of Anbar, a place synonmous with Arab nationalism, should now seek sanctuary with their onetime foe.
In this mix, there is mistrust and old animosity, but also instances of goodwill, as the refugees bring a touch of Anbar to Kurdistan and the two communities are pressed into an awkward co-existence.
“Shaqlawa has become like another Falluja,” said Khalil Yousif, who is paying $400 a month for a dingy apartment in the “Holiday Centre”. “We are all one, we are all brothers; we are all Iraqis.”
For many here, however, Kurds and Arabs alike, that unity is under question.
Anbar’s two main cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, have been under siege by the army since militants overran them on January 1, precipitating Iraq’s largest internal displacement since the sectarian civil strife of 2006-07.
Around 5,200 Anbar families have found refuge in Kurdistan, where many are now staying in hotels and holiday resorts. Many of the refugees hope parliamentary elections in April will somehow allow them to go home, but even that is just a hope.
They know they are lucky to enjoy the modest comforts of scenic mountain resorts, while fighting rages in Anbar. Still, many describe themselves as uneasy about the profound differences between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country.
“We feel as though it’s a different state,” said 30-year old Arkan, who left Falluja with 27 members of his extended family and is now staying at the “Happiness Hotel” in Dokan, a lakeside holiday town full of restaurants serving freshly fished flame-grilled carp.
“It’s nice here, but we can’t appreciate it because we were forced from our homes, and the language is a problem: we don’t know what they’re saying”.
None of Anbar’s refugees had expected to stay so long. They brought little more than the clothes they were wearing when mortars began to fall on their homes, as they found themselves caught in the fight between the government and Sunni militant fighters. All of them wanted to return to Anbar as soon as it was safe, and said they were running out of money.
Surprisingly, for all the antagonism that exists, some Kurds expressed sympathy towards their plight and felt a sense of duty to assist them.
Some refugees in Shaqlawa said hotel owners had reduced room rates for them, and one family decribed how their landlord bought them an extra generator. Kurdish authorities are also distributing some free gasoline for the refugees.
“We too were once homeless, refugees, so we welcome them,” said shopkeeper Ghazi, whose small supermarket in Shaqlawa has been doing an unseasonably good trade over the past two months. “As Kurds, we must help them”.
SCARS OF HISTORY
The scars of modern history are too painful to be erased anytime soon.
The Kurds were gassed and displaced under late Iraqi Sunni Arab president Saddam Hussein in a bid to stifle aspirations for greater independence. Only after the 1991 Gulf War did the West intervene to protect the Kurds with a no-fly zone that shielded them from Saddam.
Fortunes have since changed and the Kurdistan region is now Iraq’s most stable and prosperous, whilst many in the country’s once-dominant Sunni minority complain of ill-treatment under the Shi’ite-led government that came to power after Saddam was vanquished in 2003. Separate development has fueled tensions.
A feud over how to share Iraq’s resources has intensified to the point that Baghdad cut funding to Kurdistan, retaliating against the region’s moves to export oil independently through a new pipeline to Turkey. There is also a cultural drifting apart.
Many older Kurds speak at least some Arabic but the generation that grew up after the region gained autonomy generally does not. Today, Arab Iraqis cannot enter Kurdistan without a permit and need a local sponsor if they wish to stay long-term.
“The social ties and interconnectedness between Arabs and Kurds that sustained the idea that these are one people and part of one country are long gone,” said Fanar Haddad, the author of “Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity”.
Kurdish suspicions have not eased regarding Iraqi Arabs’ intentions.
“Frankly, we suffered at their hands,” said a 50-year-old taxi driver in Arbil who was imprisoned during Saddam’s time for refusing to do military service. “We don’t hate the Arabs, but let them have their country, and we’ll have ours”.
Twenty-two-year-old Shihab Ahmed Kufaysh was less fortunate than some of his fellow Anbaris.
Clutching his Iraqi passport, Kufaysh stood angry and dejected outside a checkpoint on the border with Kurdistan after being denied passage across one of the country’s deepest ethnic and political fault lines.
“They won’t let me in,” he said, two holdalls stuffed with belongings lying at his feet and a national identity card in hand. “I am Iraqi: isn’t this part of Iraq?”
Already vigilant on their internal border with the rest of the country, Kurdish authorities have put Arab Iraqis under further scrunity after a rare bombing in the regional capital Arbil last year, which was claimed by Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Officials in Kurdistan said the perpetrators of the attack were all Arab.
“They think we’re all terrorists. This is racism,” said Kufaysh before abandoning hope. He turned his back on the border and began his long journey back to Falluja.