Unlike in nearby villages recently captured by the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS), not a single villager has returned to Barzanke.
As I go from house to house, it becomes clear why. There is nothing for the residents to return to; virtually all the houses have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
Some were seemingly bombed from the air by US forces, others may have been struck by the Peshmerga as they tried to dislodge the IS fighters who had seized the area last August, but most were evidently blown up from inside.
Some Peshmerga had previously told me and another human rights investigator that it was their own colleagues who had blown up the houses because the villagers supported IS.
The Peshmerga, now stationed in the village offer conflicting explanations for the mass destruction. Some tell me that IS fighters blew up all the houses before they left, which does not tally with their colleagues’ narrative, nor with the situation in the area. Retreating IS fighters did not destroy nearby majority Kurdish villages, so why would they destroy an Arab village?
Others say they had to blow up the houses because they were booby-trapped and tell me not to go into the village because there are booby traps in the streets. Clearly that is not the case; one of their colleagues is walking around taking photos of the wrecks and two large dogs – the village’s only remaining residents – are roaming the areas without setting off any explosives. I spend a couple of hours going from house to house without incident.
Yet another tells me the destruction was the result of fighting but, as I point out, there is no sign of battles in the village – no pockmarked walls or spent munitions or cartridges. One fighter says they collected them so the returning residents won’t have to see them, but even his own colleagues look puzzled by the explanation. Soldiers in an acute conflict situation do not usually waste time collecting harmless and useless spent munition cartridges, all the more so in a place they claim is rigged with explosives.
They give up trying to explain the wholesale destruction and shift to justifying it: The residents, Arab Sunni Muslims, were terrorists even before the Islamic State armed group had captured the village. They have gone with IS and will not come back, they say.
There have also been allegations that when they took control of Barzanke, Peshmerga soldiers summarily executed several captured ISIS fighters. A Peshmerga who last week boasted about the unlawful killings to foreign journalists, not realizing that he was being filmed, later retracted his statement and no other evidence has emerged so far as there were no witnesses to the Peshmerga’s capture of the village.
In nearby villages also recently recaptured by Peshmerga forces, only the Kurdish residents have returned – and they are determined to keep it that way.
The rhetoric is the same everywhere: “The Arabs were with Da’esh (the name locals use to refer to IS). They cannot come back”.
In Zummar a polite, soft-spoken Kurdish young man tells me: “We’ll blow up the Arabs’ houses so they won’t come back. For the Arabs here, it’s over”. I am struck by the contrast between his gentle demeanour and the enormity of what he says.
On the shutters of several shops along the main road on the edge of the town the word “Kurdi” (Kurdish) is freshly written. Why? I asked a small group of men in civilian clothes standing by some of these shops.
“So people know who they belong to and nobody interferes with them,” they reply.
“And the other shops and properties,” I ask, “the ones belonging to the Arab residents who are seemingly not going to be allowed to return?”
The men shrug and do not respond.
On the way back, about 100 km from the town of Zummar, I get talking to an older Peshmerga who tells me he only recently completed law school because he spent his youth as a fighter against Iraq’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein. When I tell him that I’m troubled by the destruction I saw in Barzanke, he comments: “well those were Kurdish villages where Saddam Hussein settled the Arabs; and now the Kurds are taking some back”.
For now the Peshmerga have only captured relatively small areas from IS, but if and when they retake more territory, there is a real danger that revenge attacks against Sunni Arab civilians and their homes and businesses may increase – further worsening the sectarian conflict in Iraq.
The KRG must act now to stamp out any such practices, including by investigating all reports of such abuses – some of which may constitute war crimes – and ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice.
It is also incumbent on the US, European and other governments who are currently providing weapons, training and advice to the Peshmerga to put in place the necessary oversight mechanisms to ensure the conduct of the Peshmerga complies with international humanitarian law (the laws of war).
This blog was originally published in Annahar.
Follow Donatella Rovera on @DRovera