Abu Narjis sits in an empty house that a few weeks ago was home to his wife, children and more than a dozen other relatives – Kurds who had lived happily among their Arab neighbours in Baghdad for decades.
He has come back to the house where he was born to check on his family’s belongings. By the time the afternoon heat gives way to dusk and Shiite militiamen return to patrol the streets they now own, he will be gone to a safer area outside Baghdad.
“We heard that some Kurds had been assassinated,” Abu Narjis says, sitting on a concrete floor covered with a plastic woven rug. “All our friends and neighbours were telling us it wasn’t safe here any more because of the trouble between [the Kurdish leader] Massoud Barzani and Prime Minister Maliki so we left.”
Iraq’s civil war in 2005 and 2006 displaced more than a million Iraqis and turned a once religiously and ethnically mixed Baghdad into a largely Shia Arab city. In a sign of Iraq’s increasing fragmentation, for the first time since Saddam Hussein was toppled, ethnic Kurds are caught in the backlash.
Afraid of attack by Shia militias who consider the Kurdish leadership complicit in the Isis takeover of the north of Iraq, thousands have fled their homes.
“This is a dismembered society,” says Saad Eskander, a political scientist. Before the school year ended, he says, hundreds of Kurdish students at Baghdad universities left their studies to return to Kurdistan. He says he personally knows at least one Kurdish family in Baghdad in which a family member has been killed recently.
Abu Narjis, fearing retaliation, asked to be identified by the traditional honorific of his eldest child – named for the narcissus flower growing wild in Kurdistan. A 35-year-old blacksmith, he speaks Kurdish with a Baghdad Arab accent. His children barely speak it at all. He says that for him, there are no good choices.
“I want to stay here. This is my home. I grew up here. My business is here,” he says. His Shiite neighbours all watch out for him but they too are worried about what will happen to him if he stays. He would go north to Kurdistan but says he knows of Kurds being stopped and killed because they are Kurdish and he is afraid of the same fate. For now, he and his family live on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Such killings are difficult to independently verify – at the central morgue in Baghdad, the director of autopsies says they have seen a slight increase in the number bodies of Iraqis killed by militias but almost all of them are Sunni. He says many have been shot, execution style, while others are killed by lethal injection.
Abu Narjis and two of his cousins sitting with him say some Kurds are being kidnapped from Shia militia checkpoints set up on the highways north of Baghdad. At the airport, where there are several flights a day to the Kurdish capitol Erbil, militiamen at the outer security perimeter ask whether travellers going to the Kurdish region are Kurdish or Arab, he says. Wise travellers with names that could be either say they are Arab.
Abu Narjis says his older brother recently tried to rent a house in Kirkuk but was told by the Kurdish head of the district that because the family was from Baghdad they were considered Arabs, not Kurds. His cousin says that when he tried to flee to the Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah, he was detained for three days by Iraqi intelligence and told he should go back to Baghdad.
“They think that when Saddam fell, all the Kurds should have moved to Kurdistan,” says Abu Narjis. “If we stay in Baghdad, I am afraid we will be killed. If we go to the Kurdish region, they won’t let us live there.”