The north Aleppo countryside, in particular the Azaz area near the border with Turkey, has long been a 'safe zone' to which displaced persons have come, not only from Syria but also from neighbouring Iraq. The Iraqi refugees come from predominantly Sunni areas that were previously controlled by the Islamic State. These refugees made a difficult journey in coming to the north Aleppo countryside with hopes of entering Turkey. While many have entered Turkey, some still remain in the north Aleppo countryside (presently the 'Euphrates Shield' zone under Turkish occupation). Below is an interview I conducted recently with an Iraqi refugee from Mosul who resides in the al-Sina'a camp in the Azaz area.
This interview was conducted on 13 February 2019 CE and has been condensed . Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: Can you tell me about yourself?
A: I am an officer in the former Iraqi army...I finished at the military college in 1983. I was appointed a lieutenant officer in the Iraqi army from 1983...I participated in the Iran-Iraq War for some years and became a lieutenant colonel until I was discharged in 2003 for retirement. In October 2014 I left Mosul from Iraq towards Syria. I remained in Raqqa for 4 months and later at the beginning of 2015 I went to Azaz, and I have been present in Azaz since around January 2015 until now.
Q: Why did you go to Raqqa first? Why did you not go to Azaz directly?
A: The thing was that Da'esh [Islamic State] controlled Raqqa and there was the issue of smuggling: we faced delay more or less as the matter depended on finding a smuggler and finding trust, and the money that we ensure...a guarantor, some guarantor, a third person/party between us and the smuggler. So we delayed as such until we reached Azaz: Azaz, safe zone. And you know, Azaz, until now, is a safe zone, secured by the Turkish Republic and secured in all aspects. The thing most present in the camps in Azaz is security and the security situation: their control is better than all of the areas.
We the people are content in the camp, from the aspect of the hospital, the aspect of food, the aspect of a place to sleep, the aspect of the location. As I told you yesterday, the suffering only among us is when you are separated from your family: your wife sleeps in a tent and you sleep in a tent. The big tent in width is around 10m, and in length around 25m-30m, taking in around 50 people: 50 people in every tent. The tent of men. The tent of women likewise the same.
Q: In the al-Sina'a camp, most of the displaced persons are from Mosul and Tel Afar, right? And there are some from Salah al-Din.
A: Exactly sir, exactly. Most of them are from Tel Afar and Mosul. And the rest: 9 families from Tikrit, from Salah al-Din. And there are Syrians from Damascus or al-Ghouta and the likes of these areas, and there are Palestinians [i.e. Palestinian Syrians] as well, and there are muhajireen women: women of the Dawa'esh [Islamic State guys].
Q: And in the camp there are around 500 people, right? And may I ask when was the camp established?
A: This camp has existed for around 3 years...we have been in this camp for 1 year and 4 months. We in this camp are 500 people from Iraq, or more exactly 479 people, not 500: 479 to be precise, the Iraqis present here. Those besides them I do not know, because every area has its official or as we say, it has its administration, in addition to the administration of the camp. That is, in addition to the administration of the camp, we have the administration of the Iraqis: so, there is the one who administers the Iraqis, the one who administers the Palestinians, the one who administers the Syrians. This is the issue.
Q: And as you have told me, most of the Iraqis who were present in the north Aleppo countryside have gone to Turkey, right? But why have you not gone to Turkey?
A: As I told you yesterday, most of the families here are poor financially speaking: poor financially speaking, and nothing else. Thus it is. The cost of smuggling has been from $400 to $600/$700. So the expense, you know the Iraqis and in particular those from Tel Afar: the family is composed of 10 people. From where they will get $4000? From where they will get $6000? This is the problem. This has been the situation here. The issue is one of money, the money has been above everything else...all the families are afflicted in money and morale. This is the issue. As for health, the Turks have treated them for some time. There is a hospital here: the al-Ra'i hospital, Turkey directly, with supervision from specialist Turkish doctors: they treat them. The food, there is another organization here making food available for them, and place to sleep and place, the Maram organization is responsible for it. The camp is furnished by the Maram organization, for example...So the issue is that the families are afflicted financially speaking.
Q: For what reasons do the Iraqis present in the camp not want to return to Iraq?
A: A matter of security, sectarianism, Shi'ism, Iran: this is the problem. Mosul has come under the control of the Hashd. And most of them [the people of Mosul] are Sunnis. Those present here: all of them are Sunnis. The Sunnis, as you know, are 100% all wanted by Iran. The Hashd currently present in Mosul are purely Iranian Hashd: purely Iranian. The leadership present in Mosul- the Shi'a of the Hashd Sha'abi- all of them are Iranians. All of them are Iranians. Thus they cannot [return]. Those who make the journeys- the journeys are available- they go to Iraq, but then they arrest them. You find them arrested, they imprison them, subject them to humiliation, or they make them go to camps of Hamam al-Alil and others. For they are accused of terrorism: the issue of all of them: their issue is the issue of terrorism. But all of those here have no involvement in terrorism. Those present among us, all of them, have left their homes and came to these areas a year, two years, three years ago. I left my home four years ago and have entered the fifth year [of exile].
Q: Do you travel around north Aleppo countryside? For instance do you go out from the camp and go to the town of Azaz or do some of the families go to the town of Azaz for some purpose or not? Or are you only inside the camp?
A: The one who needs something from the markets go. They face no objection. They go. The one who has some business in the market goes in the morning for example. The one who needs additional food or the markets of clothes: they go out, go shopping and return...you can go out and go and return, it's fine. It's very normal. But after 10 p.m. at night, the main gate is closed. So entry and exit are normal.
Q: How do you yourself assess the situation in north Aleppo countryside? What is your opinion of the Turkish role in the region? What is the opinion of Iraqis in the camp about the Turkish role and the situation in north Aleppo countryside?
A: The Turkish role now among us is the guarantor of the life and security of the Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians. They make available for them more than what the Syrian himself, the Iraqi himself, or the Palestinian himself makes available: or any state displaced people come from. Even the muhajireen from other states, from the European states or other states. They make everything available: they make dwelling available for us, food, everything. Not just this thing. Turkey is to be thanked, to be thanked, to be thanked for what it offers. Sir, my country does not offer me what Turkey offers me. What Turkey offers me, my country does not offer me. My country does not make security available for me for example, it does make available for me life of health. Turkey makes available for me all these things.
Q: From where does electricity come for charging the phone in the camp? From where does the Internet service come?
A: There is an electricity line. You mean phone services, sir? The phone services, there is an Internet company: the people go and buy cards and subscribe in the camp. As for charging phones, there is an electricity line. Every tent has an electricity line so people can charge the phone. But matters of Internet, all who buy do so at their own expense.
Q: Lastly I would like to ask you: do you miss the days before 2003, the days of Saddam Hussein in Iraq?
A: The dearest days in my life that I spent: the days that cannot be forgotten, nor the beautiful memories: from 2003 into the time of the Saddam Hussein government. The days of the Saddam Hussein government were the finest days we Iraqis lived through from the aspect of security. We did not have any problem. You could leave the external door of the house open and sleep and you were safe. You could park your car wherever you wanted, and you could go and there was security. The Ba'ath Party, or we can say, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, provided total security to the Iraqis. Now the Shi'a more so than we are the ones who regret the killing of Saddam Hussein. Now we have people who are in contact with the Shi'a: they are now regretful of every moment, every minute since Saddam Hussein departed from our lives. God have mercy on him and forgive him. His dwelling is Paradise, God willing.
Q: I forgot. I want to ask you something. In your opinion what was the reason for the rise of Da'esh in Mosul for example and the regions of Iraq?
A: The issue of Da'esh in Iraq is an issue of sectarianism: Sunnis and Shi'a. One reason. Second, Da'esh's adherence to the religion is more than necessary. And these people do not have [proper] religion. Regarding the Shi'a, I mean the sectarian Shi'a. They have a marja'iya [religious authority] and not a religion. Their religion is loyalty to Iran and marja'iya, that is.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.