Shaqlawa, Iraq // It is only about an hour’s drive from the sweltering plains of Iraq, but the resort town of Shaqlawa feels like a world away.
Nestled in the lower reaches of the vast mountain range in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, tourists from all over Iraq once flocked to Shaqlawa to escape the blistering summer heat of the arid lowlands. Today, Shaqlawa is filled with thousands of families escaping the conflict in the south – in particular, those from Fallujah.
Since ISIL took control of Fallujah in January 2014, Sunni Arabs fleeing Fallujah have found refuge in Shaqlawa.
Their presence in Shaqlawa has been so pronounced that both locals and newcomers alike jokingly refer to it as “Shaqllujah”.
“Some of the families knew Shaqlawa as a tourist destination. Now about 6,000 families from Fallujah live here,” says Mohammed Jassem, who fled Fallujah when ISIL entered it. According to Mr Jassem, the displaced from his hometown now outnumber the locals by four to one.
The exiles watch in horror as television news chronicles the gradual destruction of their hometown, where Iraqi forces are currently engaged in heavy fighting to dislodge ISIL.
“It makes me very sad. I have many friends and family there and I don’t know what will happen to them,” says Hamed Khadir, who also left Fallujah, as he glances at the images of war flickering on his television screen.
As nationalistic news programmes show Iraqi fighters shelling the city, Mr Khadir sits in his living room and explains why he chose to come to Shaqlawa.
“I didn’t take my family to Baghdad even though it’s close by. My son’s name is Omar, and in Baghdad they were killing people just because they had Sunni names,” he says.
Read: Trapped in Fallujah, thousands of civilians risk becoming collateral damage
Mr Khadir is one of 1.3 million internally displaced Iraqis who eschewed the turmoil and sectarianism in Iraq’s south, instead choosing the relative stability and tolerance of the autonomous Kurdish region. Most of the displaced are living in refugee camps, while those who have money are able to afford housing outside the camps. Among those who fled Fallujah from late 2013, word quickly spread that Shaqlawa had plenty of empty real estate – in the form of unused holiday homes – and that no Kurdish guarantor was needed to settle there.
While the Sunni extremists of ISIL and Iraq’s majority Shiite security forces have battled it out inconclusively over the past two years, fanning the flames of religious hatred, relations between Shaqlawa’s Arab newcomers and its Kurdish locals have been good from the outset.
“They are good and peaceful people that had to run away from a bad situation. They only want to live in peace, and don’t cause any problems,” says Baxtiar Kheder, the Kurdish manager of the Safeen Restaurant that lies on the road into the town.
This goodwill is remarkable given the anti-Arab sentiment that exists in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Those feelings were largely born out of the bloody suppression of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy under former president Saddam Hussein, the current threat posed by ISIL, and a difficult relationship between the Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional government (KRG).
The integration between Arabs and Kurds in Shaqlawa is no doubt helped by the positive results the Kurdish influx has had on the local economy.
Business in the resort town slumped when ISIL overran a third of the country in 2014 and attacked the autonomous Kurdish region, where recession quickly took hold. The locals soon realised that the Arabs fleeing the south helped to make up for the absence of tourists.
“Shaqlawa is known as a good place for tourism. Because of that we built a lot of extra housing, and the people from Fallujah moved into those properties,” says Mr Kheder.
House prices initially even went up as a result of the large number of new tenants, and only fell as other Kurdish towns became more lenient about letting Arabs move in without a guarantor, leading many families to take advantage of cheaper living elsewhere.
Most of the families from Fallujah still receive a salary for the government jobs they held at home, allowing them to meet rent payments and spend on food and consumer goods. The Iraqi workforce is mainly employed by the government, which has continued to pay the salaries of citizens displaced by ISIL.
The news from the south is a constant reminder of how fortunate those in Shaqlawa are.
From the safety of the town, the families worry about those left behind in Fallujah where at least 50,000 inhabitants remain trapped. The families in Shaqlawa also wonder if their houses in Fallujah will survive the battle, but do not expect to find anything but rubble by the end of it.
Read: 20,000 children trapped in Fallujah at risk of being recruited by ISIL
Many are bitter about the fate of their hometown.
“This is not the liberation of Fallujah, it is the destruction of Fallujah,” says Bassem Khalifa, who left the city with his family as soon as ISIL took control.
It is a common belief among the displaced in Shaqlawa that the Shiite-led government and its allied militias have come to Fallujah to exact revenge for their military defeats at the hands of ISIL. The city was the first to fall to the terror group, and has long had a reputation for being a hotbed of Sunni extremism. The American military fought costly battles to purge Al Qaeda from the city in 2004 during the US-led invasion and almost razed the entire city twice.
Mr Khadir acknowledges that ISIL became more popular in Fallujah from 2013, but blames this on the sectarian politics of former Shiite prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.
“Maliki is the main reason for the enmity between Sunnis and Shias. The Sunni tribes felt rejected by the government. That is why there was some support for Daesh in Fallujah,” he says.
In 2013, Mr Al Maliki ordered troops to fire at peaceful demonstrations in the city that were protesting government discrimination of Sunnis. A year later, ISIL had taken control of Fallujah, aided by the incompetence of the Iraqi army.
“We feel betrayed by the Iraqi government. First they shot the demonstrators, then they let Daesh come to Fallujah and now they are destroying the city,” says Mohammed Abdullah, who adds that he will not return to the city unless it is handed over to a local administration after the fighting.
Despite their fear of the government and its Shiite dominated forces, however, the Shaqlawa exiles are adamant that – once expelled – ISIL will never be allowed back into Fallujah.
“The tyranny of the Iraqi government made Daesh possible. But if Daesh came back to Fallujah I would fight them myself. We have suffered a lot and we won’t allow them to come back,” says Mr Khadir.