Almost nobody remembers the Moqebleh refugee camp tucked away in a remote corner of Iraqi Kurdistan. But the experience of its Kurdish residents is worth remembering—and quite relevant to the current uprising in Syria.
In 2004 a mini-rebellion by Syrian Kurds led to a vicious government crackdown. The government claimed to be stopping a separatist uprising funded by outside powers.
In a foretelling of 2011 events, thousands of Kurds fled the country. Some ended up in the Moqebleh camp. To this day they all remain staunch opponents of the government of Bashar al Assad.
Kurds make up about 8 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people. They live in the strategically important region bordering Turkey and Iraq. The Kurdish area also contains most of the country’s limited oil supplies. So the battle to control Kurdistan is important to Syria’s future.
Kurds have long faced government discrimination. Until this year some 300,000 were denied Syrian citizenship. Schools are forbidden to teach Kurdish, and Kurdish businesses had to adopt Arabic names. Under pressure from the current uprising, President Assad restored citizenship to many of the affected Kurds and promised further reforms.
The Kurds have a history of strong opposition to the government. They demand democracy for all Syrians, but also recognition of their rights to speak their language in schools and a host of related issues. All the Syrian Kurdish parties reject separatism.
In 2004, fights broke out at a soccer game in Qamishli, a mostly Kurdish city in northern Syria. Kurds accused the government of using brute force against Kurds but not against riotous Arabs. After several days of demonstrators burning government buildings and a brutal army crackdown, at least 30 protesters were dead and 100 wounded.
In those years Salahadin Balo was an activist in Azadi, the Freedom Party, a banned organization fighting for Kurdish rights. He was arrested and tortured by the government.
His daughter Barkhodan tells me, “After he got out of prison, he came home and took off his shirt and showed his wounds. ‘I want you never to forget the Syrian government’s deeds,’ he told the family.”
The repression of 2004, like that of today, only intensified the anti-government sentiment. “I was only 13. Like any Kurdish girl, I joined the Kurds in the demonstrations. In our country, when children are 6 or 7, they learn about our society,” Barkhodan says.
Along with thousands of others, the Balo family later crossed the border into the neighboring Kurdish region of Iraq and became refugees. Iraqi Kurdish leaders set up the Moqebleh refugee camp near the city of Dohuk. It was housed in an old castle that had later served as an army barracks. Today over 300 people live in the citadel and surrounding area.
Conditions are basic, but people survive. Many refugees sleep in cement block homes covered with plastic tarpaulins. Latrines and showers are in separate buildings down the street. Local authorities and the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) provide electricity, water trucks and food rations.
Most importantly, refugees can leave the camp to work. As refugees they can’t get government jobs, but they do work in the private sector, often as construction laborers or drivers.
Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government placed all refugees who arrived before 2005 in housing in a second “camp.” It’s actually a new development with dozens of small, concrete block houses provided free to the refugees.
Camp residents still look forward to returning home. Many of them support the current, seven-month uprising against the Syrian government.
“If I were asked to return to overthrow the government, I would,” says Barkhodan Belo, now 20. “We need guarantees that we will get our rights.”
The Moqebleh camp is a reminder that whatever happens with the current uprising, Syrians won’t soon forget government repression.