February 25, 2016 / 7:04 AM / a year ago

Trapped between Iraq frontlines, refugees illustrate Sunni Arab predicament

Iraqi refugees returning from Finland wait for their luggage at Baghdad airport, Iraq February 18, 2016.Khalid al Mousily

ERBIL (Reuters) - They are trapped between two worlds - one they want to leave and the other to which they are denied entry.

For three months, more than 500 men, women and children have been living in no-man's land in northern Iraq, caught in the crossfire between Kurdish forces and Islamic State.

Their dilemma illustrates the wider predicament in which Sunni Arabs find themselves in the new order emerging from the conflict, which has displaced millions and is redrawing internal boundaries in both Iraq and Syria.

Stranded between frontlines in the Sinjar area, the group of Sunni Arabs wants to leave Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate, but is being denied passage by the Kurds, who have staked out their territory in the north and fear infiltration.

In telephone interviews with Reuters, three men from the same village, including an elder, explained that if they turned back Islamic State would kill them for trying to escape.

With nowhere to go, the group has settled around 500 meters from Kurdish positions, living in tents made out of empty sacks and taking cover in makeshift trenches when Islamic State fires mortars at the peshmerga.

"The mortars are better than hunger," said 48-year old farmer Mahmoud. "You can hide from mortars, but the hunger won't go away.”

Cold, malnutrition and lack of medical care claimed the lives of a child and an elderly woman in the winter months, and two men were killed when they stepped on a mine, the three villagers said. Another infant died during childbirth last week, according to several members of the group.

Some are suffering from skin conditions because they are not able to wash, and the water they drink from wells in the no-man's land is dirty, so they lay out containers to collect rain when it falls.

For the first two months food was smuggled to them from inside Islamic State territory, but the militants have now mined the route. They now depend on the goodwill of Arab tribes living on the Kurdish side of the frontline who recently bought them basic supplies the peshmerga allow through. They supplement that with edible plants that grow around them.

The peshmerga occasionally give bread from their own provisions to the displaced children when they are hungry and wander up to the berm, but say they cannot let anyone through the front line unless they receive orders from above.

Their commander, Fareeq Jamal, said it was not his decision who was excluded, but "anyone who is present in the area where terrorists are present is under suspicion".

The Kurds have managed to keep their autonomous region relatively safe from Islamic State, but the militants have carried out several bombings in the region's capital since 2014 and security services say they have thwarted other plots.

At a briefing in Geneva last week, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Kurdish authorities to ensure the group's safety and access to basic humanitarian aid.

"If the Kurdish authorities have security concerns about this particular group, they should vet people on an individual basis in a safe location, in full transparency and in accordance with the law," said Rupert Colville.

"If any wrongdoing is found to have taken place, those responsible should be charged and tried according to the law. Where it is found that an individual has not committed any crime and there are no legitimate security concerns which warrant his or her continued detention under the law, then he or she should be immediately released."

The Kurdish region has taken in around half of the 3.3 million Iraqis who have been internally displaced over the past two years, putting huge strain on its resources. The number will only increase as Kurdish forces take on Islamic State in their remaining strongholds.

The group of villagers has been stranded since Kurdish forces routed Islamic State from the Sinjar area last November and they fled their village of Golat.

Even if they could return there, the displaced Arabs say they are too afraid of being attacked by local Yazidis who accuse them of complicity in the atrocities perpetrated against their community by Islamic State.

The Yazidi minority was hounded by Islamic State militants who consider them devil-worshippers and killed and captured thousands as they overran the Sinjar area in the summer of 2014.

"You know what Daesh did to them," said Mahmoud. "As far as they're concerned, any (Sunni) Arab is either Daesh or related to Daesh."

Jabbar Yawar, the secretary general of the peshmerga ministry, said the entire village had sided with Islamic State, and there might be a backlash from Yazidis.

The displaced Arabs insist only one person from their village joined Islamic State and say he is now in Mosul. "If there were a Daesh (member) amongst us we would execute him ourselves," said Mahmoud. "Each one of us would put a bullet through his head".

editing by Janet McBride

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