In a picnic grove nestled in wheat and cotton fields just south of Diyarbakir, municipal officials have set up a refugee camp for more than 4,000 Yazidis who fled the threat of genocide when Islamic State extremists captured their cities in early August.
U.S. airstrikes provided the cover for Yazidis to escape the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, but it was the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, that set up a security corridor and guided them to safety through Iraqi Kurdistan and later to Turkey.
Now the local branch of Turkey’s ruling party is accusing the PKK and Diyarbakir city officials of using the Yazidis to promote the PKK’s cause. The party has a big following in Diyarbakir, though many families resent its recruiting methods, impressing young men to join them in the mountains.
Local observers say the camp couldn’t have been set up the without support from the PKK, which is banned in Turkey but still wields influence in this and other Kurdish towns, mainly through local political proxies. The camp, Turkish officials say, appears to be a PKK demonstration project, with plans for a Kurdish-language school. And they are not happy.
Municipal authorities see the camp “as their duty,” said Huseyn Aksoy, the Ankara-appointed provincial governor. “Well, they don’t have such a duty.”
The Justice and Development Party (AKP), the religious party that rules Turkey, says the Yazidis are being used.
“These poor, abandoned, friendless Yazidis are being manipulated and exploited,” said Serif Aydin, the AKP’s deputy chairman in Diyarbakir province. He blames the local PKK-aligned party, the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party, which controls most of the locally elected offices.
Yazidis are ethnic Kurds whose heterodox religion borrows from Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Their reverence for Malak Tawas, the peacock angel, has earned them the accusation of devil worship by Islamist extremists such as the Islamic State. For the PKK, with its Marxist-Leninist roots and a deep-rooted hostility to organized religion, that would make the Yazidis all the more welcome as guests.
Local officials said there was nothing nefarious about the camp. Authorities “felt a real need to stand by them . . . to put our arms around them, not just as Kurds but as human beings,” said Erkan Erenci, the camp director.
So they sent buses to the Iraqi border to pick up the Yazidis, rustled up hundreds of plastic tents, commissioned local firms to build latrines, arranged for food deliveries and set up a communal kitchen and an infirmary. For Yazidis, who lost their homes and possessions and saw their families scattered, it was shelter after their world had collapsed.
But the camp ran afoul of Turkish authorities. Because the camp’s residents weren’t registered with national authorities, they couldn’t gain free access to state hospitals. Turkey wanted its national disaster-relief agency to take over. Diyarbakir authorities are determined to prevent that from happening.
“Camps set up by the state are more like prisons,” said Erenci, who has a background in administration and a record as a political activist. He accuses the government of being insensitive to the Yazidis’ culture and religion.
“This government is of the Sunni faith. But the people here are Yazidis. So they would not receive the same treatment we would give them. The state does nothing to help them maintain their culture and their religion. We would,” he said.
Whether Turkish Kurds could do much to enhance Yazidi culture is debatable. Erenci admits he had to ask refugees whether he should set aside a place for them to worship. The answer was no, because their only temple is in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Still, local officials are certain the Yazidis are better off under their control rather than the Turkish government’s. “Yazidis are very sensitive people. They feel safer with us,” said Zubeyde Zumrut, the chairwoman of the Democratic Regions Party for Diyabakir province.
That’s true, Erenci said, even if running the camp is an outsized expense for Diyarbakir, which lacks the funds to fix its potholed streets. The city budgeted only $8.5 million for the next year to cover all expenses for the 4,100 refugees. By late October it still hadn’t installed wood stoves for the cold nights. The infirmary is stretched, and even the laundry facilities seem inadequate. The city has appealed to international donors to help pay the bill.
“In our camps, needs might not be provided for in their entirety, but their culture and faith will be preserved,” Erenci said. That translates into a plan to set up a school that will teach in Kurdish.
The stress on language is deliberate. Kurdish isn’t taught in Turkish public schools, though it could be if the PKK and the Turkish government agree to a peace deal. Although Arabic is widely spoken among Yazidis, it won’t be taught. “Because they have been subjected to massacres by Arabs, they don’t want to learn it,” Erenci said.
Erenci denies that teaching in Kurdish is part of a political agenda. “We are not going to give them ideological training,” he said. But he acknowledged the camp could be seen as a pilot project to emphasize Kurdish language and culture.
Determining how the refugees feel about the camp is difficult. Erenci sat nearby as one, Ibrahim Khlaef Suleman, 59, told of his flight from Iraq, leaving behind a two-story mud-brick house, the family car and 200 sheep. Suleman praised Erenci’s assistance and criticized the government. But he didn’t see how the camp could help with his most difficult problem: how to reunite his family, some of whom remained in Iraq while others crossed into Turkey.
The children “have no passport,” Suleman said. “They have no permission to cross the border. And I have no confidence in the Turkish government.”
According to Erenci, 90 percent of the families here are divided, and he doesn’t know what he can do. “It is out of our control,” he said.
After their nightmare escape, what the refugees want most is peace. If he had one wish in life, Suleman said, it would be “not to return to Sinjar.” The reason, he said, is “it’s possible we will be massacred by Arabs.”
Another former Sinjar resident agreed. “All we want,” said Khidir Hadji Saleeh, is “to live in a place where there is peace, peace and peace.”