For one fleeing Shiite family, extremist push in northern Iraq ends a way of life

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 5, 2014 

— The mortars rained down for 12 hours, an eternity for members of the Hassan family who huddled together in a single room, the children screaming and the adults praying to die in the shelling rather than be slaughtered by the Islamic State militants who rampaged into the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar two weeks ago.

Unlike many of their neighbors, the Hassans survived, all 19 of them, and the next day they fled their hometown on the same road they’d used in two previous displacements _ once when U.S. forces battled Sunni Muslim extremists in 2004, and again in 2005 during sectarian pogroms. But after a harrowing, five-day journey to this southern Shiite holy city, the family has given up on Tal Afar.

Qassim Hassan, 53, the patriarch of this clan of Shiite Muslim Turkmen, a minority that dates back to the 7th Century, said there hasn’t been a peaceful year since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This third narrow escape will be their last, he declared, ending more than 200 years of his family’s presence in Tal Afar, which once was considered a showpiece of U.S. counterinsurgency successes.

“We’re desperate now,” Hassan said. “We can no longer live there because we are the targets every time, and the government cannot protect us. We’re starting from zero here. We’re building a new life.”

The sectarian cleansing of Tal Afar is now complete, according to accounts from the city that say not a single Shiite family remains. The Islamic State, an al Qaida splinter group that’s captured roughly a third of Iraq, views Shiites as heretics deserving of death.

Not that the Sunnis who stayed behind fared much better _ witnesses reached by phone say the extremists demanded two women from each remaining tribe. Leaders refused and at least eight people were killed in a single night of clashes last week, creating another wave of fleeing families.

Only against this bloody backdrop could the Hassan clan be considered lucky. They made it out alive, joining some 500,000 others across Iraq who’ve fled the Islamic State offensive that began in early June, according to figures from international aid groups. More than 1.2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since January in a humanitarian crisis that’s only expected to worsen.

The Hassan family said they knew Tal Afar was next once the Islamic State stormed into the nearby city of Mosul, long an insurgent stronghold. But they heard that fleeing Shiite Turkmen families were being turned away from the autonomous Kurdish region that borders their province; many Kurds blame the Turkmen for their own displacement under the old regime of Saddam Hussein.

Members of the family said they also hoped that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki would quickly dispatch reinforcements to contain the extremists. None came. An Iraqi military position 12 miles away crumbled, like so many others across the north, when the commanders fled and the soldier followed suit. Within a week, the family said, the mortar showers began, signaling the impending arrival of the militants.

“We were defenseless,” said Badriya, a 40-year-old woman from the family.

The family managed to hold out for another several days _ they lost track of dates and times in the melee _ until they saw truckloads of masked men with long hair and Afghan-style clothing descend on their city. They decided to try their luck on the roads only after a round-the-clock bombardment killed two distant relatives, including a father of nine, who lived nearby. Qassim Hassan said his family helped bury the men in the local cemetery on their way out of the city.

“They were bombing us with mortars even as we dug the graves,” he said.

The family had received news that the Kurds had eased passage into Sinjar, about 35 miles away, so they set off as a battle raged around them. Corpses lay on the streets from both sides of the fighting, they recalled. One car broke down; they abandoned it and crammed into the remaining vehicles for a high-speed exit.

The view as they drove away, Qassim Hassan said, might well have been his last glimpse of his ancestral lands. He left behind two family homes and six shops filled with expensive fabric from a tailoring business that’s been passed down for generations.

“There is no way to describe this disappointment in the people of the north,” he said. “We never want to go back now. Never.”

Kurdish forces granted them only temporary passage through their territories. The family still has the paper permission slips, with a handwritten warning that says they could stay no more than two days. They couldn’t find a hotel or rooms to rent, so they slept at checkpoints, baking in temperatures that climbed to 113 degrees. Qassim Hassan prayed day and night that his pregnant daughter-in-law, 16-year-old Batoul, could make it to safety before delivering her first child.

The family said Kurdish forces taunted them at checkpoints, accusing them of complicity in Saddam’s campaign to drive Kurds from the area. They protested that they, too, were victims of the forced relocations of the former regime, but the Kurds wouldn’t listen.

“They sat on chairs at the checkpoints and just watched as our children suffered in the sun,” Qassim Hassan said. “We faced fear, hunger, thirst, every hardship you can imagine.”

After leaving the inhospitable Kurdish territories, the family’s ragtag convoy continued along a perilous route through contested areas until they finally reached Baghdad and then headed further south to the only place they knew they could count on refuge: the Shiites’ sacred city of Najaf. They arrived less than a week ago, their money gone and their clothes soiled and tattered.

They were given shelter on the outskirts of the city in a house of worship known as a husseiniya, which they share with eight other families from Tal Afar. Local families donated a refrigerator and bring them food and water. There is no air conditioning and only sporadic electricity. A dozen or more traumatized children milled about one recent afternoon, flinching whenever someone slammed the metal door too hard.

The women’s quarters consist of a sweltering room dotted with flimsy foam mattresses and makeshift cribs fashioned from overturned tables lined with cardboard. Their few belongings sit in plastic bags along one wall. But the mood inside was happy that day because Batoul, the expectant teenager, had just given birth to a daughter she named Amina, who lay swaddled and silent in her mother’s arms.

“God willing, we will return, and I will show her,” Batoul said. “We love Tal Afar. It was our home.”

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HannahAllam

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