Iraq: Kirkuk Oil Flowing Fast, But Locals Never See Any Money

Shalaw Mohammed (Niqash)
The province of Kirkuk exports millions of barrels of oil per month. But nobody knows where the money is going – and as a result, local protesters say they will try to stop oil exports soon.
28.01.2016  |  Kirkuk
Bai Hassan field in Kirkuk. (photo: شالاو محمد)

Bai Hassan field in Kirkuk. (photo: شالاو محمد)

The northern city of Kirkuk and its surrounds are well known for their oil producing abilities. And locals know that thousands of barrels of oil are being extracted and exported from their area. But nobody seems to be seeing any kind of revenues from that oil.

The Kirkuk authorities say they have received none of Iraq’s “petrodollars” for almost two and a half years.

This is how the system should work: An agreement between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan says that the Kurdish should send their oil, and the oil from Kirkuk, through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports crude from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey. Revenues from these exports are supposed to go to Iraq’s central State Organization for Marketing of Oil, or SOMO, and from there it should be distributed back to Iraqi Kurdistan and other provinces, as a portion of the federal budget. In Iraqi Kurdistan’s case it is supposed to be 17 percent of the federal budget.

However this has not been happening in the agreed upon way for some time now.

“Kirkuk isn’t receiving its fair share because of the ongoing conflicts between Erbil and Baghdad,” says Ahmed al-Askari, a Kurdish member of the provincial council in Kirkuk who also heads the council’s oil and gas committee. “We are not happy about this or about the Iraqi Kurdish policies on this. We don’t know how much oil is being exported and we know that Baghdad isn’t giving Kirkuk its rightful share of the federal budget. For some of 2013 and all of 2014 Baghdad didn’t send us any money. In 2015 Kirkuk’s oil was sold directly by the Iraqi Kurdish government. Neither group of authorities is telling us who has our oil money,” he complains.

“Over the past two and half years, Kirkuk has fallen into debt to the tune of between a trillion (around US$766 million) and 100 million Iraqi dinars (around US$76,000),” says Jamal Mawloud, the head of the provisional council’s financial committee. “If the governments in Baghdad and Kurdistan don’t send us our budget, this financial crisis will continue on into 2016.”

In Kirkuk province there are five oil fields – the Jambour, Khabaza and Baba Gurgur fields, which are controlled by Iraq’s own North Oil company, part of the Iraqi Ministry of Oil and headquartered in Kirkuk, and the other two fields – Bai Hassan and  Havana – which are run by Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Natural Resources.

According to figures published by various government bodies, Kirkuk province exports around 340,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil per day.

“The citizens of Kirkuk have been following up on Kirkuk’s provincial budget,” one official at the Ministry of Natural resources told NIQASH, on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to comment on the matter. “They are accusing everyone involved – the central government, the regional government and the governor of Kirkuk – of hiding the facts. These bodies have control of the oil and the budget and nobody knows anything about where the revenues are going.”

“The central government, the Iraqi Kurdish government and the governor of Kirkuk have all refused to respond to our enquiries about revenues coming from Kirkuk’s oil,” says Adham Juma, a member of new civilian action group on oil that founded two months ago. “That’s why citizens here believe that there is actually a secret agreement not to talk about Kirkuk’s oil money.”

“We have given the governor some time to come back to us with further information,” Juma continued. “If he does not clarify this, we will start organizing demonstrations and we are also going to try and impede the export of Kirkuk’s oil.”

NIQASH also tried to contact Kirkuk’s governor, Najmiddin Karim, but his office did not return the calls.

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In Istanbul, Meeting The Iraqis About to Take Illegal Route Into Europe

Nawzat Shamdeen (Niqash)
During a visit to Istanbul’s “small city of Arabs” neighbourhood, NIQASH’s correspondent meets three friends who fled Islamic State-controlled Mosul and who are about to try to get to Europe, to seek asylum.
6.01.2016  |  Istanbul

As the day surrenders to darkness, Aksaray Square in the Turkish capital city, Istanbul, becomes a launchpad for the dreams of hundreds of Iraqis and Syrians desperately seeking a better life in Europe. The neighbourhood of Aksaray – or the small city of Arabs, as Turkish locals call it – looks like any busy neighbourhood in Baghdad or Damascus, with its cheap cafes and hotels filled with Arabs. And it is there that people smugglers meet with their clients to negotiate fares, and from there too, that would-be refugees are taken to the coast in order to make the illegal and perilous sea crossing to European shores.

I met there with three young men originally from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq; Mosul was taken over by the extremist group known as the Islamic State in June 2014 and has been controlled by the group ever since. Life is not good for residents of Mosul who don’t agree with the draconian philosophy of the Islamic State, or IS, group and many locals have tried to escape. These three young men are among them and one of them is a friend, a journalist named Abdul Muhaymin Bassel. When we met, the trio had already negotiated with a Syrian people smuggler and were supposed to meet him near the train station in Aksaray Square.

“From death…to death,” Abdul called to me, joking as he climbed aboard.

The people smuggler had told them to buy life jackets, rain coats and to carry only a small sports bag of their belongings. These are the only things allowed on the boats that will be used to carry them from Turkey to Greece. The items are sold everywhere here, with pictures displayed on signs outside dozens of small shops in lanes around Aksaray Square.

The people smuggler’s name is Tariq and he is in his late thirties. By the time he meets my friends, he has collected all of his clients for this journey after making a series of telephone calls. He left nine of them, including the three from Mosul, standing in the Square while another five were taken to an empty space underneath a bridge where he negotiated payment and departure dates in relative privacy. Prices are set by Tariq, who is successful, a big name in local smuggling circles, and non-negotiable – it costs US$1,300 for the trip and this includes the bus to the coast. Other people smugglers charge more per person – between US$2,500 and US$3,000 – and they say the would-be migrants will cross on a bigger boat. But this can often be a more complex process as the bigger boats are more likely to be stopped by the coastguard. Cheap rubber boats are faster and tend to encounter less official resistance, even though they are also more dangerous.

To hide his clients, Tariq divides them into three groups before they begin walking to the bus that will take them to the coast.

Tariq wouldn’t allow me to travel on the bus with my friends. And Abdul waved goodbye as he boarded the bus. “From death…to death,” the 25-year-old called to me, joking as he climbed aboard. He was referring to the fact that he and his friends, Omar, 22, and Moheb, 30, had all escaped death in Mosul, where the IS group have killed many local journalists, but that they were now facing death again, as they attempted to get to Europe. They have left their families behind in Iraqi Kurdistan and also in Turkey. How Abdul sees it: This voyage is just another journey, another adventure, that he must survive.

At around 10pm the bus left, heading for Izmir on the Turkish coast. Abdul promises to keep in touch with me by phone and Internet.

Rumour has it there are gangs on the road preying on migrants, stealing their money and sometimes even body parts.

The bus drove for nearly five hours, Abdul told me later, and Tariq got off and on at short stops. More passengers joined the bus, including women and children, and Tariq would also stop and talk to drivers of small cars he met with on the road – Abdul assumed they were lookouts. “It was like we were being kidnapped,” Abdul said, referring to rumours that there were gangs on the road preying on migrants, stealing their money, possessions and sometimes even body parts, before dumping the corpses in remote areas.

The bus stopped in a dark and lonely place and the smugglers ordered the passengers off the bus, telling them to switch off their cellphones and not to make any noise. In one long line they all walked through a ghostly forest for about an hour. When they got near the coast, they were told to wait. The smugglers could see the lights of the Turkish coastguard but they were waiting for a signal of their own too.

As soon as they received that signal, they swung into rapid action, inflating a rubber boat, attaching an outboard motor to it, as well as tyres and ropes. Then they set off for Greece – there were 49 people on the boat, which was about ten meters long.

And these migrants were lucky. They made it without any problems, Abdul told me later. “And when we got to Greece they gave us food and water, with a smile,” he says. From the coast of Greece, the trio of ex-Mosul locals were on their own. Abdul says the refugees share information with another continuously on social media and on messaging apps. He says their next moves were guided by one message telling them that the borders to Croatia are open but that there might be potential delays at the borders to Slovenia. “Be aware that the authorities may try and take you to the Hungarian border. To get to Croatia, buy a ten Euro ticket to the Serbian town of Šid then walk into Croatia. The nearest village is Tovarnik. There you will find help,” the message said.

After two days of non stop travelling, the three friends shared a hotel room for the night before moving onto Athens the following night, then to Thessaloniki on the border of Greece and Macedonia. At the train station there, Abdul estimates there were about 600 others trying to catch a train. The train, when they finally got on it, stopped at the last station on the Serbian border and then they joined a crowd of others and walked about another ten kilometres. The trio panicked when they saw Serbian troops – but in fact, Abdul reports, the soldiers were kind and told them which way to go. Then followed a taxi ride, a bus ride and then another taxi ride until the group reached Belgrade.

From Belgrade, they took a bus to the Croatian border, walked for five hours in a mountainous area and then at the Croatian border were hoping to catch the train. But the messages on social media were not private. “And we were so surprised to see about a thousand people all at the station waiting for the same train,” Abdul adds. The train was supposed to go to Slovenia and then Austria but instead it detoured to Hungary. Rumours about how harshly the Hungarian authorities treated migrants made everyone panic, as well as stories about how being an illegal immigrant could get you thrown into a Hungarian prison for three years – but their fears turned out to be baseless. After waiting several hours at the Hungarian border, the migrants were told that they could catch the next train to Austria, which would seat as many as 1,400 people and they were also offered a free lunch.

Many Iraqis who made the dangerous journey to Europe have decided their lives were better back home and they want to return.

Seven hours later, the trio were in Vienna. And it was here that they say they first felt some relief and some sense of the freedom they had so desperately been seeking, Abdul says. In Vienna they were told they could stay in Austria but that they were also free to leave. The trio decided they wanted to go to Sweden and after spending a night in one of the refugee camps in Germany, they travelled onwards. All three are now in Sweden applying for asylum.

Speaking to Abdul on Skype in Sweden, he is filled with optimism and describes the 13-day voyage as one of the most dangerous and most important in his life. He says that he and his friends were very lucky to have made it because they know plenty of other Iraqis who haven’t been able to make this journey – either they were stopped by security services, or their boat floundered (leading, in some cases, to fatalities) or they were tricked by people smugglers.

However, Abdul counters, since arriving in Europe he and his friends have also met plenty of Iraqis who say they want to return to Iraq, or who are seriously thinking about doing that. Ahmed Jamal, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirms this, saying that 7,500 temporary passports have been sent to Iraqi missions in Europe in order to facilitate the return of Iraqis who want to come back voluntarily, who had changed their minds about staying in Europe; widely publicized decisions by some European governments meant that Iraqis didn’t want to stay, and the passports were sent because often applying for asylum involves surrendering one’s own passport.

Speaking to other Iraqis in Scandinavia who are hoping for asylum in Europe, it becomes clear that many of them realise that their situation is somewhat precarious. Those from the south and from the north of Iraq may have lost hope that their lives will ever get better in Iraq and there may be ongoing daily dangers to survive. But in general they are not considered to be in as much danger as, say, Syrians or Palestinians who are applying for asylum. Many of these Iraqis will eventually be denied asylum. Some Iraqis have eventually discovered that their lives in Iraq were actually much better than they seemed to be in northern Europe, where they cannot speak the language, are unemployed and dependent on local bureaucracy.

As yet my friend Abdul is not one of these Iraqis. Despite any hardships Abdul, who is currently in Malmo, Sweden, with a temporary residency permit, may face, he says he will not go back to Iraq – unless he is forced to.

For Iraqi Minorities, ‘Immigration No Longer A Choice, It’s Inevitable’

Saad Salloum (Niqash)
In an interview, Raad Jabar al-Khamis, a representative of the Sabean-Mandaean minority, talks about why all minorities in Iraq will leave the country over the next decade.
14.01.2016  |  Baghdad
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Raad Jabar al-Khamis has held many senior political positions on behalf of Iraq’s Sabean-Mandaean minority. The Sabean-Mandaeans are a tiny minority in Iraq, characterised by ancient rituals that cross between Christianity and Islam. Despite the fact that this minority has been able to secure one of the quota seats, dedicated specially to the country’s minorities, in Iraq’s Parliament, al-Khamis says that this is largely symbolic and that Mandaeans have no real political power thanks to power sharing deals between the country’s larger ethnic and sectarian groups. As it is, it probably doesn’t matter anyway, he says. The way things are going all members of Iraq’s minorities, and especially the ones like his, will have left the country during the next decade.

NIQASH: The Mandaeans are well known for running the minority’s affairs in a particularly democratic way. Can you tell us more about this?

Raad Jabar al-Khamis: This is true. In fact, we have three different leadership organisations. These are the Mandaean Spiritual Council , the Mandaean General Assembly and the Community Affairs Council. All of these were originally formed in the 1980s and each one represents the different social groups within the minority. For example, the Spiritual Council is composed of clergy and headed by the Mandaeans’ spiritual leader, Satar Jabar Helo. Meanwhile the General Assembly represents members of all the different family groups or tribes and these representatives have been elected by their own families. This council is like the Mandaeans’ own Parliament, of sorts. And finally the Community Affairs Council is another kind of authority, with members coming from the General Assembly. This body manages the more general, custodial affairs of all Mandaeans

Many religious and social leaders have already left Iraq. That makes every other Mandaean want to leave too.

NIQASH: In terms of these democratic processes, how did you end up being elected the Mandaean representative on Baghdad’s provincial council?

Al-Khamis: We hold other internal elections inside our community to select the candidates who will take up the special minority quota seats. I competed and won, which is how I got the job as Mandaean representative on Baghdad’s provincial council.

NIQASH: It doesn’t seem like the interests of the Mandaean minority are particularly well represented by any of Iraq’s political parties. Have you thought about starting your own party?

Al-Khamis: We haven’t done this as yet. Some Mandaeans have joined left wing parties, as have members of other Iraqi minorities. But we did start a committee composed of between nine and 15 members, whose job was to try and build bridges and to encourage cooperation with decision makers in other parties, as well as to represent the Mandaean people in any political forums. We believe this fills the political gap.

NIQASH: Do these different groups work together at all?

Al-Khamis: There’s a lot of coordination between the religious leaders and the political committee. The clergy try not to get involved in the details of daily political affairs. Still the religious leaders have an important role to play when it comes to any candidacies. While the final decisions should be made democratically by the Mandaean General Assembly, there’s no doubt that if the clergy accept a candidate this is seen as an endorsement.

NIQASH: The Mandaeans have had a quota seat – one that is automatically given to a Mandaean politician – in the Iraqi Parliament for several elections now. How do you feel about the minority’s participation in Iraqi politics?

Al-Khamis: In reality our participation is symbolic. It has no significant political weight and there is no real or active participation in the political process. The Mandaeans are not represented in any of Iraq’s federal ministries, we don’t even have one general manager. The only high-ranking position we can get is as the general manager of the endowment for Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans [the body taking financial care of the minorities’ religious buildings]. This is really disturbing because the Mandaeans are one of the oldest religious groups in Iraq.

NIQASH: So what would the Mandaeans like to see happening?

Al-Khamis: We would like to participate in the political process without marginalization or exclusion. However the power sharing deals between the major political groups in this country – the Sunni Muslim parties, Shiite Muslim parties and the Iraqi Kurdish – don’t allow minorities to make any real progress or to participate.

Personally I believe that giving Mandaeans responsibility for a service- provision ministry would give us an opportunity to serve our country. But I also think this is impossible at this stage.

NIQASH: What do you think the future holds for Mandaeans in Iraq?

Al-Khamis: In the past we were just worried that all Mandaeans would leave Iraq. But now we think that Iraq will actually lose all of its minority groups within the space of ten years – and ten years is optimistic. Many Mandaeans have already left the country and this includes religious and social leaders. That makes every other Mandaean want to leave too. Immigration is no longer a matter of choice. It is an inevitable reality.

Leader of Group For Afro-Iraqi Rights: ‘A Lot of Iraqis Still Call Us Slaves’

Saad Salloum (Niqash)
African Iraqi, Salem Shaaban, heads the Movement of Free Iraqis, an advocacy group for black Iraqis here. He tells NIQASH about his organisation’s strategy and its plans to raise the political profile of African Iraqis.
African-Iraqi men sing after their group "Free Iraqi Movement" was approved as a political party to run in the coming local elections in Basra, 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad December 6, 2008. Inspired by Barack Obama's election in the United States, some black Iraqis plan to run in a forthcoming election, to end what they call centuries of discrimination because of their slave ancestry.  Picture taken December 6.  To match feature IRAQ/BLACKS     REUTERS/Atef Hassan (IRAQ)

African-Iraqi men sing after their group “Free Iraqi Movement” was approved as a political party to run in the coming local elections in Basra, 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad December 6, 2008. Inspired by Barack Obama’s election in the United States, some black Iraqis plan to run in a forthcoming election, to end what they call centuries of discrimination because of their slave ancestry. Picture taken December 6. To match feature IRAQ/BLACKS REUTERS/Atef Hassan (IRAQ)

There are an estimated 1.5 million African Iraqis in Iraq today but they are hardly ever seen in the country’s political, and even its social and cultural, life. A former champion boxer, Salem Shaaban, heads the Movement of Free Iraqis, or Ansar Al Huriyah, an organisation that advocates for Iraqis of African origin. Shaaban talked to NIQASH about the challenges his organisation faces as it tries to improve the profile of Iraqi Africans and combat discrimination against them. And he outlines a change of strategy that he hopes will see the Movement of Free Iraqis join up with some of the country’s larger political parties.

NIQASH: Can you tell us some more about your organisation?

Salem Shaaban: The planning conference for the Movement of Free Iraqis – the first organisation of its kind to defend the rights of Iraqis of African origin in Iraq and the Middle East – was in 2009 and it was held directly after Barack Obama’s victory in the US Presidential elections. During that conference, we formulated our founding principles and announced the names of board members – this included two women board members.

NIQASH: We know that the organisation often sends candidates to campaign for election. What other things have you been doing?

Shaaban: The Movement has held a number of seminars and workshops to discuss issues related to the challenges faced in a society divided along factional and sectarian lines. But really, raising the morale and the profile of Iraqis of African origin and increasing their role in society is our most important task.

NIQASH: And what does the Movement of Free Iraqis want? Are your aims political?

Shaaban: We don’t necessarily want to see more Iraqis of African origin in politics. We would rather develop some sort of mechanism that can address discrimination against us. A lot of people still call us “abed” [which means “slave”] and that is insulting. It’s a way of thinking about us that is deeply rooted in this culture.

Our people are still suffering because they live in social isolation. This makes them reluctant to participate in public life because they know they’re going to be abused. It keeps them uneducated and illiterate, in isolation. So it’s difficult to even think about participating in politics or having people go to school with confidence, so they can work and gain positions that would increase their self confidence.

NIQASH: How would you assess the level of your success in electoral competition?

Shaaban: During the 2010 provincial elections in Basra, I was nominated to run, along with other members of the Movement of Free Iraqis. I think that because I am a well known athlete in Iraq I was able to win a lot of votes. I was an Iraqi boxing champion in the 1970s. My colleagues also won votes but none of us were able to get an actual seat on the provincial council. Other parties in Basra have a lot more resources and did a lot of campaigning as well as distributing money and aid to voters. We were unable to offer anything except our electoral promises.

I was also nominated to compete in the 2011 elections on the list for minorities. But the list is a Kurdish one and I didn’t get any support from them. Additionally the amount of money that the electoral commission wanted as a financial guarantee was beyond me. Smaller parties and independents simple cannot compete with the bigger parties that have such tremendous financial resources.

NIQASH: have you considered building alliances with other, larger political parties?

Shaaban: Yes. If we had done this earlier we might have been able to win seats on the provincial council in Basra. In the future we will work with bigger parties. Partially this is also for protection. After Jalal Thiyab was assassinated [in April 2013; Thiyab, the founder of the Movement, was often referred to as “the Martin Luther King of Iraq”] a lot of people were reluctant to compete in the elections. Additionally the larger parties will help us with financial support. In this way we hope to overcome our biggest challenges.

 

Iraq: The Dhi Qar Industry That Provides All the Jobs, Then Sickens Workers

Raad Salem (Niqash)

In the southern province of Dhi Qar there are over a hundred brick factories. They emit smoke and fumes 24 hours a day and are a leading cause of illness and environmental problems.

12.11.2015  |  Dhi Qar
Biggest environmental problem: Iraqi brick factories emitting noxious smoke.
Biggest environmental problem: Iraqi brick factories emitting noxious smoke.
In the district of Islah, in Iraq’s Dhi Qar province, tall chimneys belch out black, sooty smoke. Underneath them, locals move around as if they are traveling in trenches, between caves. The smoke blocks out the sun. The chimneys belong to local brick factories – there are around 40 in this area – and are well known for burning what locals call “black oil” – any kind of unrefined petroleum product that can be burned in an oven – to fire their brick furnaces.

Ismail Salib, 25, has been working in one of the privately owned brick factories for years. Workers in the factories are paid according to how many bricks they produce daily. But now Salib, who lives in a nearby village, Safafah, is worried he may not be able to support his family of three much longer – he has a variety of lung problems.

“Medicine is really expensive,” he told NIQASH, admitting that every now and then he was forced to stay in bed coughing, rather than go to work. “Most of the time I can’t afford it.” And, Salib, explains, he didn’t finish his education because he married young; he knows it would be difficult to find employment in another, less life-endangering sector.

Each brick-making plant in the area employs around 150 locals, many of whom come from Safafah village. Many of the villagers report health problems from working in the brick-making factories. The mayor of Safafah, Nassim Jassim Owais, believes that a disproportionate number of health problems – including cancer, asthma, pneumonia and birth defects – can be blamed on the brick manufacturers. Owais also thinks that a lot of locals don’t report illnesses, especially among their children, as they fear losing their jobs.

During a tour of one of the brick-making plants, owner Jamil Katea downplayed environmental and health concerns. “The Department of the Environment has forced us to stop using black oil,” he explains, adding that his factories now use electric kilns, imported from Iran. Some of the brick factories have retrofitted less polluting machinery but it’s not always that effective – and renovating the industry thoroughly would be too expensive, the factory owners say.

“The Iranian systems are not that efficient,” says Ali Hussein Raddad, the mayor of the Islah district. “And competition between the different plant owners, coupled with high demand, means that many of them operate the plants all night using the old methods.”

The black smoke coming out of the brick factories is also doing damage to the environment. Agricultural land gets covered in soot, soil salinity is rising and the price of livestock here has dropped sharply thanks to the pollution.

Penalties have been imposed on some plants, says Mohsen Aziz, who heads the provincial Department of the Environment in Dhi Qar. Nine plants that didn’t comply with instructions had their work suspended and financial penalties were imposed on others. Even so, the plants that were closed continued to operate because there was nobody there to supervise their shut-down.

The problem that the brick factories represent is one of the most pressing environmental issues in the province, he noted. “There are about 107 brick plants and most of them have official licenses,” Aziz told NIQASH. “They are all over the province but almost half of them are in Islah.”

Some politicians are also paying attention to the issue. Dakhel Radhi, a member of Dhi Qar’s provincial council, says he wants to have the council discuss the problem and come up with some sensible solutions. However he also said that there would be a number of formalities to go through before he could do this – and that might take some time, he added.

From Kirkuk to Hell: Tragic Tale of One Iraqi Family’s Attempt to Immigrate to Europe

Shalaw Mohammed  (Niqash)
Policeman Mohammed al-Faj’s family of seven left Kirkuk in mid-October to find a better life in Europe. By the end of October only one of them was left alive.
12.11.2015  |  Kirkuk

A city in northern Iraq, Kirkuk has become well known as a multi-ethnic flash point where political and sectarian disputes have caused all kinds of problems, some of them deadly. As a policeman there, al-Jaf was in more danger than in many other Iraqi areas.

So the 39-year-old sold his house and his car and decided to leave, together with his 34-year-old wife and their five children. On October 16, 2015, the family flew to Turkey. “There I contacted one of the Kurdish smugglers and he agreed to take us in a boat to Greece for US$3,000,” al-Faj continues. “On October 18, he told us the boat was ready and would take 20 passengers. He also sent me a picture of the proposed boat on a messaging app and I agreed to it. But when we arrived at the launching site it was a totally different boat and there were about 50 people trying to get on it. I was scared.”

Al-Faj talks about how the people smugglers sold them on to other people smugglers twice, before they even boarded the boat. Turkey is considered the best port of embarkation for Iraqis because it is easier for Iraqis to get into that country. From there those Iraqis trying to get to Europe will end up passing through the hands of, and paying, a number of people smuggling rings, with each guaranteeing them safe arrival at their destination of choice.

As al-Faj continues his story, he becomes tearful. “A strong wave hit the boat around midnight just as we were getting close to the Greek island of Lesbos,” al-Faj recalls. “The boat capsized and out of around 50 people on the boat, 25 people were rescued, 12 drowned and 13 are missing.”

Four of those who drowned and two of the missing were from al-Faj’s family. Four days after the incident, al-Faj decided to bury his four children’s bodies in a Muslim cemetery on another Greek island, Kos. They were Khanda, 16, Helen, 10, Van, 6, and Ahmad, 4. Al-Faj still hoped that the bodies of his wife and 11-year-old Abdul-Razzaq might be found. But the Greek government stated that they considered the 13 missing from the boat drowned.

“I am so sorry about what I did,” al-Faj says sorrowfully.

Al-Jaf’s father, Ahmad al-Jaf, is 72 and lives in Kirkuk. Almost three weeks after his family died at sea, he says he begged his son not to leave. But he wouldn’t listen. “The only thing I want now is to recover the bodies of my daughter-in-law and my five grandchildren,” al-Jaf told NIQASH.

“Right from the start I felt that they were traveling the wrong way,” says the brother of al-Jaf’s wife, who also still lives in Iraq. “But Mohammed said he must find a better way of life for his family. He told us not to worry or to be sad and that in 15 days, he would send us pictures of himself and his family in Germany. Five days later, I was told that my sister and my nieces and nephews were dead.”

All of al-Jaf’s relatives in Iraq want the Iraqi Kurdish government to help them bring the bodies home, but this seems unlikely to happen now.

In the meantime al-Faj has decided to continue his journey to Germany alone. He buried his children and then with the further help of other people smugglers, he made his way to northern Europe. He is now living in a refugee camp there. Although he says he has lost his will to live in many ways, he does not plan to return to Iraq. He says he will never go back again if he can help it.

Death Hidden in the Dirt: Old Land Mines in Maysan Still Killing Shepherds and Farmers

Haider al-Husseini
5.11.2015 (Niqash)

The authorities in Maysan province had been clearing land mines from the Iran-Iraq war with the help of the army, albeit slowly.

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The sound was deafening and awful. Clods of earth and stones flew into the air and there was smoke. The sound was followed by the cries of people nearby and then, even worse, the calls for help and screams of the two young boys who had been closest to the land mine. The third boy, who had also been nearby, was silent.

“I had never heard anything like that in my life before,” says Abdul-Amir al-Jizani, the father of the three boys who were closest to the land mine. “It was so frightening. And I didn’t expect to see body parts scattered around – one of my sons – and the other two boys screaming and weeping.”

The al-Jizani family are shepherds and they move their cattle around in search of fertile ground in Iraq’s southern Maysan province. The only mistake that the three young shepherds made was to lose their way on land that’s been abandoned since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Most of the people in this area, Tayeb, which is about 30 kilometres east of the provincial capital, Amarah, do the same kinds of work, grazing and farming or working as shepherds. Every season about 2,000 people come from the outskirts of Amarah and spread out across about 36,000 square kilometres. Land mines are a major problem for these roaming families – over the years the mines have been moved by environmental factors, like floods. In other cases the maps or signs showing where they were have disappeared.

Local Iraqi media continuously run headlines like this: Child killed by land mines, Oil worker loses leg in mine explosion. And Maysan is one of the most heavily mined provinces in Iraq, along with Basra, Nasiriya, and Muthanna.

“We don’t have detailed maps that show where land mines were planted on the border strip between Iraq and Iran,” says Samir Abboud, the head of Maysan’s Department of the Environment. “We actually only have a rough estimate – but we think there are about 3 million mines that have not yet been exploded or found, and these are causing casualties among local farmers.”

Abboud says they’ve tried to fence off areas they believe are mined as well as erect warning signs. But it’s a vast area and they haven’t been all that successful, he notes.

Although statistics are hard to come by, the Iraqi government estimates that there are around 5,000 victims of land mines in Iraq, with about 800 coming from the parts of Maysan bordering Iran. Most of these were farmers or shepherds.

The Head of the Health and Environment Commission in Maysan, Maytham Lafta al-Fartousi, believes there are about 5 million land mines in the province, along with millions of unexploded munitions. “These remnants of war are in the border areas between Iraq and Iran,” he explains. “Despite such big numbers, the central government hasn’t come up with any kind of plan to remove them or reprocess them.”

Between 2005 and 2006 a South African company was contracted to clear mines from Maysan. But the company eventually withdrew because of violent conflicts in the area that also targeted their premises. There are oil fields in the area that are being developed and oil workers are also at risk from land mines – the Maysan Oil Company is trying to clear the area of mines and had been working with the Iraqi military to do this. However this attempt is now on hold thanks to the military being needed in the fight against the extremist Islamic State group.

Removing land mines is a very expensive process, says Khaled Wahem, the spokesperson for the Maysan Oil Company. The cost of clearing a square meter of land is US$4 and the cost of surveying the land afterwards, to ensure that all mines have been removed, is US$1,900 per team of surveyors.

“Our volunteers are trying to spread awareness among the people here about the dangers of land mines – especially during spring when farmers and shepherds become more active on the land,” says the director of Iraq’s Red Crescent, Haider al-Jawadi. Al-Jawadi also says that the government doesn’t really help the victims of mines at all.

Abdul-Ridha Mahood runs a society for the disabled in Maysan and he criticises the Iraqi government for not helping them. “No Iraqi government has ever been serious about passing laws that guarantee disabled people rights, nor have they ever helped with health care,” Mahood says. “They offer them nothing. It’s a nightmare.”

In fact, Mahood says that disabled people in Maysan have become so dispirited about the situation – they feel nobody will ever help them – that membership in the society he heads has dropped significantly.