Stepping out of a police station and into the early morning light, 55-year-old Sakban Yassin was shot twice, once in the head and once in the stomach. Um Aan didn’t see the killer; all she saw was her husband’s broken body crumpling beside her.
Yassin’s murder is just one in a series of mystery killings and disappearances in Iraq’s disputed territories, now officially secured by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which runs Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan region. There is little evidence to show who is behind the crimes, but the identities of those dying follows a trend – the majority of the victims are Sunni Muslim and Arab, often already displaced by conflict.
The Yassin family had fled their village in Diyala governorate in eastern Iraq over a year earlier, fearing the advance of so-called Islamic State (ISIS). While the militants are Sunni Muslims who have persecuted groups they consider heretical, such as Shia Muslims and Yazidis, they have also shown little mercy to Sunnis who resist their fanatical interpretation of Islam.
Seeking safety, the Yassins headed north towards the relative peace of the Kurdistan region, eventually ending up in Sankur, an isolated semi-abandoned village near the disputed city of Kirkuk.
Things took a turn for the worse when two of their sons were jailed in the nearby town of Tuz Khurmatu over their involvement in a minor car accident. According to the displaced people in Sankur, the levels of violence against Sunni Arabs in Tuz is such that, for families like the Yassins, the town is best avoided. But the parents had to visit their sons.
The 70-kilometre stretch of road between Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu is lined with Kurdish security forces and Shia militia bases, including the notorious Badr Corps. All these armed groups are accused of holding grudges against Sunni Arabs, often suspecting them of sympathising with ISIS.
Yassin was shot after taking food and medicine to his imprisoned sons during Ramadan. “He was a sick and elderly man,” said Um Aan of her husband, who was diabetic. “But apparently they were watching him."
“We don’t know who kills,” said Sa’ad Mohammed, a displaced teacher living in Sankur. “You don’t know who is the enemy.”
Fear is pervasive…
At an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) distribution centre in Tuz Khurmatu, displaced people collecting large aid packages were nervous to talk about the violence. When several women began to discuss the attacks, saying they were scared of “revenge,” a plain-clothed Kurdish intelligence official overseeing the distribution told them to be quiet.
Abdul Kareem, originally from Diyala, explained the situation: “Tuz Khurmatu is divided in two: al-Jumhuriyah is run by the Kurdish police, and there are no problems; but Hay al-Askary is controlled by Shia militia. Sunnis will find problems there.”
“I cannot understand exactly what’s going on, but people disappear,” he said. “Some days four people, some days six.”
Mohammed Hassan was attending the distribution with four of his brothers. He lowered his voice: “When ISIS came, the city was antagonised and Sunnis started to be targeted.” To protect themselves, they “only move when it’s necessary.”
A large gathering of Sunni Arab IDPs might attract the wrong sort of attention. There were shouts as people tried to leave the distribution fast, piling the blankets and boxes into shared pick-ups.
Many of the displaced back in Sankur are too scared to even enter Tuz Khurmatu to sign up for a government cash grant. Sa’ad pointed out that they “cannot go into Tuz to register because of the killing.”
Also facing restrictions on travelling into Kirkuk city, they are forced to rely upon what little aid can come to them. The ICRC has provided some help in Sankur. But there is still no running water – the Yassin family adds chemicals to the river water to make it drinkable.
Major Kamal of the Asayish (Kurdish intelligence force) in Tuz denies his forces have been involved in any of the reported disappearances.
“In our office, no detainees are arrested without warrant,” he said. “When we arrest somebody, we don't arrest them on a racial or sectarian basis; [only] when they are suspected of committing terror acts, or at least in contact with the terror organisations.”
He argued that there are legitimate security concerns, requiring surveillance. “In Tuz Khurmatu, there are about 50 Arab Sunni families under our control in terms of investigation.”
In July, a suicide bombing on a swimming pool in Tuz Khurmatu left at least 12 dead. On that occasion, most of the victims were Shia Turkmen. Again, the identity of those behind the attack remains a mystery.