Yazidi family abandons EU dream and reluctantly returns to Iraq
Khari Hasan Kalo looked out the window of the repatriation flight as it landed in northern Iraq. It is a place he and his family hoped they would never see again after leaving for Belarus two months ago, driven by dreams of a new life in Europe.
Kalo, 35, had applied for loans and spent his savings on the ill-fated trip to the Belarusian capital of Minsk, the first stop on a trip west.
His wife, Zena, 30, had sold her few possessions on the bet that left the family of six stranded for days in a cold forest on the border of Belarus and Poland. Eventually, they returned home, fearing to endanger the life of Kalo’s ailing 80-year-old mother.
Yet they say they would do it again to escape their desperate life, spent in a camp for internally displaced people for the past seven years. The Kalos are Yazidis, a religious minority who were brutalized by Islamic State militants when they invaded northern Iraq in 2014.
At the time, Islamic State extremists ransacked the Yazidi town of Sinjar and surrounding villages and destroyed religious sites. They kidnapped and enslaved thousands of women and children. Years after their lives were torn apart, the Yazidis are still unable to return home or locate hundreds of women and children who had been abducted by extremists. The Kalos’ house is in ruins.
“If it hadn’t been for my kids and my mother, I would never have come back, I would have stayed in this forest at all costs rather than going back to this tent,” Kalo said on Friday, addressing the ‘Associated Press from Karbato camp. in the province of Dohuk in the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Region. Her frail-looking mother slept throughout the interview.
The Kalos, including three children aged 5, 7 and 9, had returned from Belarus the day before.
âIt’s not even our tent; it’s his sister, âhis wife interrupted. “This is not a place to raise children, to have a life.”
The region is considered the most stable part of conflict-ridden Iraq, but Iraqi Kurds were a large group among the thousands of Middle Eastern migrants who had fled to Belarus since the summer. Even in the more prosperous north of Iraq, growing unemployment and corruption are fueling migration, and the Yazidi community has endured particular hardships.
Hundreds of Iraqis returned from Belarus on Thursday after abandoning their hopes of joining the European Union. The repatriation came after thousands of migrants found themselves stranded at the Polish-Belarusian border amid growing tensions between the two countries.
Kalo’s family were among 430 people who returned from Minsk to Iraq, where 390 landed at Irbil International Airport before the flight continued to Baghdad.
The West has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as pawns to destabilize the EU in retaliation for sanctions imposed on its authoritarian regime following a harsh crackdown on internal dissent. Belarus denies causing the crisis, which has seen migrants enter the country since the summer, lured by easy tourist visas, then attempt to cross EU-member Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Kalo didn’t care that a geopolitical game was played at his expense if he got his family out of Iraq.
“What if I was a pawn in someone’s hands if it brought me to Germany?” ” he said.
Since being moved, the family had grown more and more desperate. Their tent burned down in an accidental fire in June that ravaged the Sharia camp, also in Dohuk. They tried to return to their original home in Sinjar but found their home uninhabitable.
Tensions were also brewing in the region between a patchwork of rival militias, Iraqi forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an insurgent group banned by Turkey. Turkish planes continued to target PKK members in northern Iraq.
Then he heard friends say Kurds found their way to Germany after Belarus eased visa requirements last spring. He begged his brother in Australia to wire him $ 9,000 to pay the price the smugglers asked for his wife, three young children and his mother.
He had also saved money from his time as a police officer – hard-earned money because he had suffered discrimination as a Yazidis. Colleagues refused to eat or share a room with him, he said. He asked for a reassignment, but his boss told him it would only be possible if he paid him half of his income.
“What good is a job if it still isn’t enough to feed your family?” he said of his decision to quit.
The Kalos took the overland route to Istanbul in September and embarked for Minsk the following month. There they headed straight for the Polish border. Along with two other Iraqi families, the Kalos dug under the border fence, reaching the other side in the dark.
They walked for four days looking for a GPS point where they were promised a car would meet them and take them straight to Germany.
But that never happened.
Instead, on day four, Kalo’s family ran out of food as temperatures dropped in the dense, soggy forest.
Polish authorities found them and sent them back across the border. They were greeted by an encampment of hundreds of migrants. Belarusian authorities were distributing wire cutters and pushing migrants back through the razor wire.
The Polish authorities used water cannons to repel them. But that did not deter Belarusian authorities, who beat and threatened them, Kalo said. He said they shouted, “Come on [to] Poland!”
Still, husband and wife fought to stay, agreeing that all was better than their life in a tent.
But with his mother struggling to survive as conditions grew increasingly squalid, Kalo begged the Belarusian authorities for mercy. They allowed them to return to Minsk for medical help.
Kalo learned that the Iraqi government had agreed to repatriate citizens for free. He turned to his wife and they considered their choices: return to their desperate life in Iraq, or take responsibility if his mother died.
Reluctantly, they put their names on the list.
But their hope is not lost, Kalo said, as his 5-year-old daughter Katarin buried her face in her chest at the Karbato camp.
“I have two priorities now,” he said. “The first one [is] to have our own tent. The second, to get back on my feet and leave this country. I’ll get there this time.
He added, âIf this was my last day on this Earth, I would spend it trying to get away. “