The Eye of the Storm

As the Syrian civil war bleeds into northern Iraq, a once-quiet oasis is brewing with tensions.

ERBIL, Iraq — In a region surrounded by political upheaval, Iraq's Kurdish enclave resembles the calm in the eye of the storm. The region, home to approximately four million Kurds, is booming: In the capital of Erbil, streets snake between old buildings and modern additions, and shopping malls and skyscrapers are now commonplace. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), however, now finds its image as an oasis of peace and security threatened by the ever-worsening war in neighboring Syria.

On Nov. 3, the government intelligence headquarters in the city of Akrah was the target of an attempted double suicide bombing. The assailants -- one Syrian and one Iraqi man of Arab origins -- were stopped by the intelligence services before the attack could be carried out. In a previous attack, officials hadn't been so lucky: A series of explosions hit Erbil on Sept. 29, killing six people and injuring dozens. It was the first such attack to hit the city since 2007.

The September bombings were orchestrated by the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in retaliation for the KRG's support for Syrian Kurds. Following a spike in the fierce fighting between Kurdish fighters and the ISIS in August, and as reports of mass killings of Kurdish civilians began to circulate, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani warned that Iraqi Kurdistan will "make use of all its capabilities to defend the Kurdish women, children, and citizens in Western Kurdistan."

In addition to these new security threats, the KRG is dealing with a huge demographic shift inside its borders. An estimated 235,000 refugees have flowed into the area from Syria, fleeing the worsening conflict. According to the head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Hemin Hawrami, the city of Dohuk has witnessed a 15 percent rise in population in less than a year, straining the area's schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure to the limit. "The budget that we have, the capabilities that we have are for Iraqi Kurdistan," he said. "But not for this large influx of refugees."

On the streets of Erbil, the dialect spoken by Syria's Kurds, Kurmanji, is becoming increasingly common. New camps are being built on the outskirts of the city to accommodate the growing number of fleeing Syrians. "We're providing camps, education, and all of the basic services that they need. We have a human obligation as well as a national and ethnic one," said Hawrami. "But our aim is not to keep the refugees forever, because we don't want the Kurdish areas in Syria to become evacuated and be filled by other people."

The KRG has spent roughly $65 million to care for the refugees -- but the international community has often overlooked the refugee crisis here. Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG's Department of Foreign Relations, wants this to change. "It became too much for our capabilities, we are now pushing the international community for help."

While the strain from the influx of refugees could lead to tension among Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, another possibility is that the intermixing of Kurdish populations could help fuel Kurdish unity. While the KRG is adamant that it will not split off from Iraq, it is nevertheless prepared to consider its options in a time of increasing uncertainty. "We will not be the reason behind the disintegration of Iraq -- we are committed to a federal, democratic Iraq," said Mustafa. "But if the situation goes wrong, we do not want to pay the price if the other sides fail to sort out their differences."

There is, however, little reason to suspect that Syria and Iraq's Kurdish areas are poised to break off from their respective nation-states and unite into one country. Pan-Kurdish sentiment is not the unifying force many in the West tend to think it is, and the ongoing Syrian conflict has also highlighted the divisions within the Kurdish movement.

The prime example of this is Syria's main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is often at odds with its Iraqi counterparts. The party, for example, has vehemently refuted Barzani's repeated suggestion that Iraq's Kurdistan region could be a successful model for Syrian Kurds "The KRG is not an example for the Syrian people," said PYD leader Salih Muslim. "The people of Rojava [Kurdish Syria] govern themselves."

The Syrian Kurdish party fears that their Iraqi brethren are trying to force a political model upon them. And while there hasn't been an explicit attempt by the KRG to do so, the Iraqi Kurds have dispatched both humanitarian and military aid to the conflict zone -- a step viewed suspiciously by the PYD, which aims to dominate the area. "The PYD impose their will on the rest of the groups and don't allow anyone to be on the ground. That's the main problem," said Mustafa.

The powers that be in Iraq's Kurdish Region have not been shy about displaying their unhappiness with the PYD. In October, Salih Muslim was repeatedly denied entrance to the KRG, transforming another example of Kurdish political disunity into a media story. "The decision to keep me in Rojava was a political one," he said. "It is like a competition, we have different ideologies."

On Nov. 11, the PYD once again struck out on their own by announcing plans to create a transitional government in Kurdish Syria. Although the PYD appears cautious in defining the extent of this transitional government's autonomy, the party's increasing power over Syrian territory could lead to greater friction between with the KRG. The PYD's representatives have held out hope that the KRG could support their latest move, but it has so far not been forthcoming. "There has been no coordination with any group" on this issue, said the KRG's Mustafa. "It is a unilateral act from the PYD."

The inability to mend ties is not only an obstacle on the road toward a united Kurdish front, it is also a weakness easily exploited by stronger external players. Iraqi Kurdistan notably has strong economic ties with Turkey and Iran -- and yet, Turkey is supporting militant Islamist groups that pose a threat to the Syrian Kurds, while Iran backs the Syrian regime, which hopes to regain its control over its Kurdish areas.

This may appear a no-win scenario for Iraq's Kurds, but the KRG is hardly naïve. "Of course Iran and Turkey are neighbors and regional players, but Kurdish foreign policy is to keep the balance ... and not be part of the blocks in the Middle East," said Hawrami. "[W]e follow what is in the interest of the Kurds, not what is in the interest of Iran, Turkey or anywhere else."

But while the war creates deeper cleavages between Kurdish political factions, it has not affected the KRG's drive for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, Iraqi Kurdish officials clearly realize that both the Syrian war and its effects on an already fragmented Iraq could give them an opportunity to further consolidate their nascent state and assert themselves as strong regional players.

"The Middle East is witnessing a wave of changes, we as Kurds find that this is our opportunity to assert our identity, and try to achieve our rights in a peaceful way," said Mustafa.

That peace, however, could be shattered by further outbreaks of terror and violence by al Qaeda elements in Iraq and Syria. The battles ahead will shape the future of the Kurds in both countries. 



'We Live and Die Here Like Animals'

The Central African Republic has suffered a horrific collapse. But is the worst violence between the country’s Muslims and Christians yet to come?

BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic — In the schoolrooms of the northern Central African Republic (CAR), the blackboards still show dates from late March -- when Seleka rebels seized power in the country and a nightmare began. Since then, the armed Seleka, whose collective name means "alliance" in Sango, the local language, have ruled through fear: burning down village after village, firing randomly at civilians from their pick-up trucks, executing farmers in their fields, and murdering women and children. Their brutality continues to spread like a deadly cancer.

Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes and hide deep in the bush, where countless have died from disease. The Ouham prefecture, where 170,000 people have been displaced, is the country's worst-affected area. Around Bossangoa, Ouham's capital, it is possible to drive for hours without seeing a single person in a village -- and the sound of a car engine is enough to stir terror among the displaced walking along rutted, rural dirt roads in search of safety.

In early November, as I traveled around the region with photographer Marcus Bleasdale to document the widespread violence, people often mistook our car for a Seleka military vehicle. One day, our passage was blocked by the meager bundles of belongings dropped by a family that had fled into the bush as they heard us approach. We found a toddler crying on the road: His parents had lost him as they ran away. When they emerged a few minutes later, after much coaxing, they explained that they had been walking all night to reach Bossangoa, where some 40,000 people are living in dismal, cramped conditions around a Catholic church. "There are so many children dying... from malaria and typhoid fever," the exhausted father told us. His family had fled their town after a Seleka attack in mid-October that killed dozens. "There is no food, but most of the people are still hiding in the bush because of the long distance to Bossangoa, and the insecurity on the roads."

Since its independence from France in 1960, almost every political transition in the CAR has been marred by violence, and those who commit it have rarely been brought to justice. Recent developments are no exception: The Seleka, a coalition of three rebel factions that had been independently fighting the central government for several years, formed in late 2012 over President François Bozizé's failure to bring promised development to the marginalized north, where security and social services were almost totally absent, and to implement power-sharing peace agreements. After a months-long offensive, the Seleka seized Bangui, the CAR's capital, and ousted Bozizé in March.

Almost all of the Seleka's leaders and fighters are Muslims, a small minority in the CAR that has suffered discrimination at the hands of leaders from the country's Christian majority. Many of the Seleka may not even be CAR citizens, but instead come from Sudan and Chad. CAR's self-declared president, Michel Djotodia, a former Seleka leader, has ordered the rebel forces to disband, but they continue to rule with the gun, particularly throughout the north.

Worsening the situation, fury with the Seleka is now spilling over into vicious armed resistance among Christians. One Muslim woman remembers a Christian militant saying to her during an anti-Muslim attack in Ouham that killed hundreds in September, "Muslims overthrew President Bozizé, and there will be no safety for Muslims until [the] Seleka [are] gone." At another massacre of Muslims the same month, a militia leader told captured villagers, "We will kill all the Muslims, and we will kill all of your livestock," before his fighters cut the throat of one man and opened fire on the others, killing four more.

If nothing is done, the CAR could descend into a deep, inter-communal religious conflict -- with much greater bloodshed than even what we've seen thus far. In early November, the United Nations went so far as to warn that the current conflict is at risk of escalating into genocide.

Already, the human toll, as recounted by those who have survived or witnessed violence, is shocking.

Nicole Faraganda, 34, gave birth to a little girl on Oct. 9 in the village of Wikamo in Ouham. The next day, four vehicles with Seleka fighters tore down the road in front of her hut, spraying gunfire at the fleeing population. Still recovering from giving birth, Nicole was a bit slower than her fellow villagers, and she was shot dead, as was a 12-year-old neighbor, Samuel Denamjora. The Seleka fighters then got out of their vehicles, looted the local school and hospital, and systematically burned down hundreds of thatched-roof homes.

The Seleka fighters proceeded to the market town of Ouham Bac, where they shot down another nine civilians. Three more died from drowning after jumping into a nearby, fast-flowing river to escape the gunmen. One of the victims, Gaston Sanbogai, 22, was a blind man left behind by his neighbors when they fled. He tried to hide in the bushes near his home, but the Seleka fighters found him, pulled him out, and shot him dead.

At the large but deserted market town of Ndjo, we asked the few local villagers we could find to take us to their hiding places in the bush. Over four kilometers, we had to wade through a waist-deep river and follow narrow tracks. At the first lean-to shelter, we found the dignified village chief of Ndjo, 55-year-old Rafael Newane, whose face was lined with sadness. He showed us the graves of two of his grandchildren, Frediane Mobene, 9 months, and Oreli Newane, 6 months, who had died just a week before, three days apart, from untreated malaria.

At the next shelter, we found Placide Yamini, Ndjo's medical officer, who had buried his sister, dead from malaria 48 hours before. He told us that, every week, there are four or five deaths among the displaced villagers. Despite his medical training, he is unable to help most of them: Seleka fighters looted Ndjo's hospital and its pharmacy on Sept. 16, leaving Yamini without medications. He showed us his tiny medical kit, which held just a single bandage and a few surgical tools, and said he had been living like this since the Seleka came to power. "We live and die here like animals," he added, barely able to contain his anger.

Those who have made it to Bossangoa live in desperate conditions: Every structure and inch of space around the town's Catholic church -- its seminary, guest house, school, library, storage rooms, soccer pitch, and the surrounding fields -- have been taken over by displaced people, all Christians. The camp is so crowded, and filled with noise and the smoke of cooking fires, that it is difficult to walk among the tiny tents, hardly large enough for two people but sheltering entire families. We had to use local guides to avoid getting lost.

Just down the road, hundreds of displaced Muslims have sought safety at the town's school. This separation, and the presence of Seleka fighters in Bossangoa under the command of a man who calls himself General "Yaya" and only converses in Arabic, is a reminder that, even while serving as something of a safe haven for villagers who have nowhere else to go, Bossangoa is not entirely secure.

As we were walking in the church camp one day, a Christian boy came running to the local priest to say his uncle had just been shot dead by Seleka fighters at a nearby checkpoint. When we went to investigate, we found the uncle still alive but badly beaten. He had crossed into the Muslim quarter of town to look for his straying livestock. A displaced Muslim woman started yelling at him, and then told the Seleka fighters to kill him, accusing his parents of fighting against Seleka. The Seleka fighters beat the uncle with the back of their guns, and then brought a knife to cut his throat. He struggled and managed to run away. The Seleka fighters fired at him but missed.

Farming has also become a dangerous occupation for Bossangoa's besieged civilians. Almost every day, Seleka fighters and armed cattle herders shoot farmers dead, but many still take extraordinary risks to go to their fields to find food. On Oct. 24, Thierry Demokossai, 40 and the father of five, was working in his manioc field together with several neighbors when four Seleka fighters approached on foot. Without any provocation, they shot him in the head and then killed two of his neighbors, according to his grieving wife.

After months of suffering such abuses at the hands of Seleka fighters, the mostly Christian communities of the northern CAR have begun to organize an armed response. Bozizé, the deposed president, organized village self-defense forces years ago to fight an epidemic of criminal gangs known as coupeurs du route ("road bandits"). Today, these militias, called anti-balaka (balaka means "machete" in Sango), are fighting the Seleka. They are armed with homemade hunting weapons, knives, and swords, and adorned with colorful fetishes that they believe protect them from bullets.

A leader of the anti-balaka forces whom we met in Ouham said, "The anti-Balaka are exclusively Christian, and our aim is to liberate the Christian population from the yoke of the Muslims. We are not a rebel group, our fight is only against the Seleka and to protect the population from them. We are the youth, organized by ourselves in self-defense." But worryingly, the anti-balaka do not just target Seleka: On a number of occasions, they have devastated Muslim communities.

In the early morning of Sept. 6, anti-balaka forces working with military elements loyal to Bozizé carried out a series of brutal surprise and near-simultaneous attacks on Seleka bases and Muslim communities in several villages around Bossangoa, killing dozens. Muslim males, regardless of age, faced death. Tala Astita, 55, was in the town of Zere when its Muslim quarter was attacked at 5 a.m. Fighters carrying AK-47s came to her house and ordered her husband, Bouba Gai, and her 13-year-old son, Halidou Bouba, to lay down before hacking them to death with machetes. The attackers then set the house on fire and tossed the two corpses into the flames. Other Muslims were similarly murdered.

Astita escaped by convincing the killers she was a Christian. She then hid for several weeks in the bush and disguised her 3-year-old son as a girl with earrings to save his life. Her 14-year-old daughter, Kande Bouba, as well as her husband's other wife and 4-year-old daughter, were taken away alive by the anti-balaka during the attack on Zere and remain missing.

At the same time as the attacks, anti-balaka forces raided dozens of Muslim-owned cattle camps, killing people and stealing thousands of cattle. Particular brutality was reserved for the nomadic Mbororo Muslims, despised by Christian farmers long before the current conflict because they often herd cattle into farmers' fields and destroy crops. The tensions between sedentary Christians and nomadic Muslims show that claims to the land are yet another dimension of the CAR's violence -- much like they have been in Darfur. 

Aishatu Isa, an Mbororo woman in her forties, was in a cattle camp near the town of Ber Zembe when fighters attacked around mid-day. Surrounding the nomads, they took Isa's 3-year-old boy, Khalidou Ngadjo, from her arms while gathering all of the male members in the camp. The attackers slit the young boy's throat, then the throats of Bouba Keriyo, 10, and Tahirou, 14. They also slit the throat of the one adult male in the camp, named Yaya Douka. The women were allowed to leave after witnessing the killings, but as they ran, they heard the fighters arguing as to whether the women should live or die.

The anti-balaka's attacks have triggered brutal reprisals by Seleka fighters against Christian communities. This heinous cycle of inter-religious violence only continues to intensify, threatening to explode into an all-out war between Christians and Muslims.

Up to now, the response of the international community has been minuscule. A small African military force, called FOMAC, rarely leaves its bases and often yields to the authority of the Seleka. It thus does little to help the civilian population -- aside from running a brisk trade in beer from their compound in Bossangoa. A more robust peacekeeping force, like the United Nations force now deployed in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, is needed.

Because the Seleka have targeted humanitarian organizations, enhanced security is particularly necessary to permit the unfettered provision of aid. To date, very little of what food, water, and medical assistance have been sent has reached the displaced; in many of the villages we visited, we were the first foreigners anyone had seen since Seleka took power.

As we returned from our drives through Ouham, we were greeted not by the panic we had seen initially, but by villagers emerging from the bush, waving and yelling "Merci." The people of the CAR deserve better than the glimmer of hope that seeing a car carrying people who do not wish to harm or kill them brings. They deserve immediate relief, as well as eventual justice, served to those who have committed crimes -- and breaking the CAR's longstanding cycle of violence and impunity.