That windy day in November, the crowd was surrounding me and my travel companion Alex, trying to shield us from the guards and smuggle us inside the refugee camp. I was unsure, but soon Alex and I gave in to the crowd and were escorted to the ‘office’ from whence we proceeded to the endless labyrinth of white AFAD tents and sand paths of Fidanlik Park, a large refugee camp on the outskirts of Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey.
I’d met Alex the day before, on top of Nemrut Dağı, one of the most fascinating monuments of ancient world in southeastern Turkey. It happened that we found ourselves hitchhiking to Diyarbakir together. While we, nomads by choice, frequently find ourselves camping out in the cold of a few days and call it ‘adventure’, millions of people around the world are forced out of their homes and end up camping out in the cold for years, with not a slightest idea when this disaster is going to end.
I’d also read a little bit about the Yazidi refugee camp in Diyarbakir beforehand, although the information online was still scarce, and what I read were mostly reports of negligence and strict policy of not allowing journalists inside without expressed permission from the city authorities. There is almost two million refugees in Turkey right now, about 21,000 of them are Yazidis from Iraq and Syria, persecuted by ISIS and forced to cross borders into Turkey.
‘Maybe it is because we are not Muslims’, our guide tells us. He used to work with Americans in Iraq and speaks good English. ‘All my family left Sinjar. We had to hide, cross endless mountain ranges to get to the Turkish border. It was not safe in the Iraqi Kurdistan anymore’.
Yazidism is a complex ancient religion, linked to Zoroastrianism and passed through generations with oral tradition. Misunderstood and understudied among Christians and Muslims, Yazidis are frequently considered ‘heathens’ and ‘devil worshippers’, because their mythology features not only One God, but also his angels, created specifically for the purpose to manage earthly affairs. The most famous of them is the Peacock Angel Melek Ta’us, who, according to the legend, refused to bow before Adam against God’s order, stating that only One God deserves his devotion, not a man made of dust. Compared to similar stories in Islam and Christianity, the legend reminds of no other but Satan who was banished from the sky for his pride and refusal to bow before the first human. When I tried to ask our guide more about the religion, and whether they are allowed to worship here, in the camp, I could not really get a coherent response. It seems that most Yazidis are keeping their faith to themselves, and do not speak about it much with someone outside the community. This voluntary religious and ideological isolation of Yazidis is another reason why even back in Iraq they lived aside from the rest of the population: marriages with representatives of other communities are frowned upon, and outsiders seem to rarely get a glimpse of the religion from inside.
When they first came here, they were promised a 2-month temporary stay in Fidanlik park, until some solution would be found for placement and legalisation of some 5,000 people who just made it through massacres and dangerous mountain passes. As I was walking around the camp, barb wire was being wrapped around the walls of Fidanlik Park. The tents are lined up in the northern end of it, while the southern part of the park is occupied by a playground for children and picnic spots – something the park was used for before it was turned into a refugee camp.
Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD) have done their job by erecting a whole tented settlement in Fidanlik park, with kitchen and bathroom facilities, constant food and power supply.
‘Last week some journalists from Germany came, but they were not allowed inside’, our guide continues. The guards had told us the same: only if you get a written permission from the municipality of Diyarbakir. Otherwise, no entry. ‘We are supported by the Kurdish people, and I think the Turkish government thinks we all have ties with PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party, firmly associated with separatist activities in Turkish Kurdistan). This is why they do not help us. And because of our religion, nobody cares.’ Most Yazidis speak Kurmanji (Kurdish) as their first language, and are ethnic Kurds.
Amin, a young man, is a qualified nurse, and he volunteers his skills to be the camp doctor. For any medical emergency, the refugees can call an ambulance, but they all must pay their medical expenses, while having no opportunity to earn money. 2 people have died in the camp so far, 6 are very sick, but even when brought to Diyarbakir they do not get the necessary medical assistance.
Shirin Ismail, from Sinjar, is a 40-year-old mother of 11 children, suffering of heart disease and high blood pressure. Most of her family is in Iraqi Kurdistan, and back at home she had an opportunity to treat the illness, discovered just 5 months prior to the day they had to run away from Iraq. Here, each scan or medical test costs the family a small fortune, and living in a tent does not contribute much good to Shirin’s medical condition.
8-year-old Ghazal has a kidney problem, and an operation would cost the family up to $20,000. In another tent, little Tahsin Hamza, aged a bit older than 14 months, suffers from birth defect in his leg. After one surgery the condition just got worse, and a new surgery would cost the family another $10,000, not to mention that a cold tent in the park is not a suitable bed for a recovering child.
‘You are asking what happens to the sick here? Well, it is simple: they die,’ Amin explains.
’There is medicine coming in from some international NGOs, but we don’t see half of it. Between the delivery point and our camp, somebody steals the meds, and we never seem to have enough. I am sure they just keep half of the supply and sell it,’ the person in charge of the medicine tells us.
They just hope things will get better. Some of the people still cradle hope of returning home, to a peaceful Iraq they knew. Some of them are waiting for invitations to Europe or overseas, from their relatives and friends. Some simply do not have any idea about the future. It is hard to be a child refugee, with scarce to no opportunity of getting proper education, healthcare, family relations. However, children seem to be the least preoccupied inhabitants of the Fidanlik park. It is probably the fact that they do not fully realise the gravity of their situation that makes them seem carefree, having forgotten of all the horrors their families had to endure on their way to Turkey. Those memories might be suppressed, but they will most likely stay with them for the years to come. Fidanlik park has swings and merry-go-rounds, and plenty of space to play, and while parents are occupied with washing, cooking and worrying about the future, they do not have to worry about their children – until a medical issue comes up, of course.
We are invited for a quick dinner in one of the tents. People who by definition are in no position to be generous hosts, ask us to join them in one of the tents for delicious bread and spicy meal, like they would have done should we ever visit them in Iraq. Old habits die hard, and if the food is sufficient and stories are flowing, we should never stop eating and talking.
‘I hope you will tell somebody what’s going on here,’ someone touches my hand. ’I hope one day we will be able to go home.’