The land just south of the Turkish border in Iraq is tough to cover and to define. Steep mountains are home to PKK and PJAK militants; cities are in the midst of bone-bending growth spurts; and a hot, untraceable yellow desert ripples outward from the scattered towns. Turks call it Northern Iraq a linguistic muzzle around the threat of an independent Kurdistan, but the millions living there, mostly Kurds, proudly call it Iraqi Kurdistan. Most of the area is a semi-autonomous region where the bright Kurdish flag colors the landscape – and people boast, albeit cautiously, about their relative security and prosperity. The portions of the land that remain under Baghdad control seem more menacing, partly owing to the army checkpoints that speak to ongoing risks, and partly because of the decades-long association of that country's flag with the violent sequence of dictatorship, invasion, and war.
In the middle of all this, at the end of a Baghdad-controlled road out of Erbil and surrounded by a barbed wire fence and armed guards, is the Makhmour refugee camp for Turkish Kurds. Here, in the middle of an imposing desert and hundreds of miles from their homes in Turkey, the thousands of refugees know exactly where they are: nowhere.
"When we came here there was nothing," one of the camp leaders, calling himself Haji, told me as we walked through the camp's narrow streets. "They brought us here to die, but we built homes instead. My first house was made of soil. My second house was made out of rock. My third house is made out of cement."
The Makhmour camp was opened in 1992 to accommodate Turkish Kurds fleeing violence between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and the Turkish Army. During that decade, years which are wedged in the consciousness of most Turkish Kurds, the destruction or forced evacuation of villages in the mainly Kurdish southeast – an army campaign to weed out PKK sympathizers – quickly and permanently reconfigured the region. Rural life all but disappeared and cities like Diyarbakir swelled with displaced villagers. Many Kurds left the country altogether, settling first just below the border with Turkey and eventually moving further south to Makhmour, away from the fighting. Their presence marks an early wave of Turkish Kurds forging new lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, although their stories of forced migration have little in common with the business deals or brotherhood that entice Turkish Kurds to Erbil today, and their opinion of Iraqi Kurdistan is far less positive.
Back in the 1990s, in the middle of that inhospitable Iraqi desert, far from their homes in Sirnak or Mardin – "so green and beautiful," Haji remembers – the refugees built a town complete with schools, shops, and systems of governance. They also constructed a strong identity that both supplies them with purpose and alienates them. Makhmour today is a testament to the survival of its refugees and to how direct the path is from oppression to political extremism.
This identity is borne out of the tormented evacuation of the Turkish countryside and an arduous border crossing ending in the tight confines of a refugee camp where they have endured over a decade of hardship and homesickness. These struggles are made apparent in the town's modest structures and ardent, collective remembering. A day care center is named after a young girl who died of a snake bite upon arriving; residents tell stories of local heroes who foiled plots to poison their water or amputated limbs while waiting for the slow local ambulance to arrive; women proclaim their disinterest in material goods above freedom and men denounce religion as useless. The politics are of strict allegiance to the PKK and resistance to the Turkish state, and the two – the camp's identity and its politics – cannot be separated. Both are the recourse of the trapped and both are embedded in new generations of Makhmour's refugees.
In the middle of the camp is a memorial. Unlike the buildings that surround it, neat but rudimentary one-story brick structures surrounded by similarly sand-colored brick fences, the concrete hall that hosts the memorial is powered by two massive generators and built to be visited and to last. Hanging along its long walls are hundreds of 8x10 photos of Makhmour refugees who have died while fighting in the PKK or as a result of PKK violence. Many of the men and women are posing in their guerilla uniforms, showing off their weapons, standing proudly in the low green brush of the Kandil mountains. On the front wall, two enormous framed posters – one of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the PKK, and the other of Vian Jiaf, a young woman who self-immolated in support of Ocalan – hang high over the mass of smaller portraits.
One of my guides, a middle-aged woman in a loose flowered headscarf, points out frames containing photos of relatives or friends. It takes a while; she becomes overwhelmed and begins to cry. Later, we sit on the floor and talk about what surrounds us. The memorial is not only a visual representation of what the camp has lost to the PKK, it is evidence of why the refugees are yet unable to return to Turkey. Makhmour has a bad reputation. "In the eyes of Turkey we are no different from the guerrillas in the mountains," one woman says. "They say we carry guns and are terrorists. They create propaganda about the camp. But it is because of the camp that people here know about the Kurds in Turkey. We want to save our identity and our nationality." At Makhmour, as in much of southeastern Turkey, that identity is more PKK than Kurdish.
Part of that identity necessitates rejecting everything, including new comforts and opportunities offered by Iraqi Kurdistan, in the pursuit of freedom. "There are the same problems here as there are in Turkey," Haji says. "The pressure is the same." Although hundreds of them leave everyday for work or school in Erbil, the appeal of the PKK and the battle with the Turkish state eclipses their relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government. "At first it was only the people who loved the PKK that went to the mountains," Haji continues. "Now it is the educated people who know the history of the Kurdish people who go. People who want freedom don't consider a life in Erbil."
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq things have improved economically for the refugees, and they have been able to travel more freely between the camp and Erbil, which is about 60 kilometers north. "Before we just had bread but now we have bread and yogurt and tomatoes," they tell me. We sit down to a large meal of pasta and vegetables. The refugees are hospitable, patient, and eager to talk. If Makhmour's international politics keep its residents in a holding pattern far from Turkey, its local politics keep things stable in the camp. There are two main councils in Makhmour – one of which is dedicated solely to women's issues – and twenty others with specific focuses like youth, arts and culture, and health. Elections are held every two years. Life in the camp, they boast, is more democratic than life in Turkey or in Erbil.
The refugees are averse to bartering for freedom. Their lives spent inside the camp have made them hardliners on the issue of their own independence and, unlike Kurds who stayed in Turkey, less willing to see Iraqi Kurdistan as a sign of hope. "There is not complete freedom for Kurds anywhere," they tell me. "They don't have a democracy in Erbil." As the refugees focus on the two extremes of mundane daily survival and armed resistance, they are cynical about the burgeoning government and economy in the semi-autonomous region beyond their gates, a tough expanse of desert and mountains which they call Southern Kurdistan.