How the World Is Ignoring a Humanitarian Crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan

Amid air strikes by Turkish warplanes and constant shelling by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, hundreds of Kurdish families have become displaced, some have lost their livelihoods, others have seen their homes destroyed. An unknown number has been killed.

The Kurdish Party of a Free Life for Kurdistan (PJAK) and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been fighting since mid-July in the border areas between the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. The Guards launched a ground offensive and shelled PJAK positions, inflicting losses not only to the militants but also to villagers in the area.

Barely 10 days into the conflict, the International Organization for Migration reported that the fighting displaced “hundreds of families” in the Sulaymaniyah district of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. The Red Cross and the UNHCR both reported that they were providing shelter, food and other assistance to more than 800 displaced people.

After the initial press releases, these organizations seem to have gone quiet, but a local Kurdish official described the displacements thus:

These places have no population because most people left a month ago after they were bombarded by Iranian artillery. Even shepherds have stopped going to these places.

Humanitarian assistance is critical during the unforgiving summer in the region. Temperatures range between 110 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August, which coincided with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. The confluence of these factors means that many of the villagers are hot, hungry and fleeing for their lives.

Just as Iranian shelling moved away from some of these villages, Kurdish warplanes began bombarding another Kurdish rebel group — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — thus preventing some of the villagers from returning even a month after they abandoned their homes. The airstrikes, which have continued intermittently, may have even created fresh waves of displacement, but information from the region has been scare.

Much of the news from the area comes from Iranian and Kurdish media quoting officials from the Guards and members of the PKK and PJAK who, unsurprisingly, make contradictory and often inflated statements. Comments from officials of the autonomous Kurdish government about damage to civilian life and property cannot be independently verified because of a lack of media presence in the area.

And while the clashes have continued and the humanitarian situation has dragged on, the rest of the world has been looking elsewhere – at the Arab Spring, the London riots, Hurricane Irene, the debt crisis, the stock market fluctuations, and Dominique Straus-Kahn.

This news saturation and the media blindspot in the region of conflict might be keeping the true scale of the humanitarian impact hidden. The displacement of hundreds of families and damage to school buildings certainly means a significant paralysis of life in the sparsely populated northeastern border regions of Iraq.

Iran has been involved in skirmishes with PJAK rebels on-and-off in the past, but the current spate is unprecedented in its duration — it is likely the longest lasting combat operation by the Revolutionary Guards since the Iran-Iraq war ended more than 20 years ago.

Local Kurdish officials have been insisting on Iran to stop its operations, citing loss of civilian lives, destruction of property and infiltration of Iranian forces into Iraqi territory. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is considered an Iranian ally, has only made muted calls for Iranian restraint. By increasing orders of magnitude, however, the Iraqi foreign minister, the Iraqi parliament and Kurdistan officials have been more vocal, denouncing Iranian attacks and warning that they could threaten bilateral ties.

For its part, Iran has rejected claims of civilian casualties and violation of Iraqi territory, maintaining defiantly that it will continue to shell PJAK positions until the militant organization has been rendered incapable of attacking Iran. It has turned down two unilateral declarations of ceasefire from PJAK, the most recent of which was supposed to come into effect on Monday.

PJAK is an offshoot of the PKK and, based in Iraq, has been mainly involved in armed confrontations with the Iranian forces. Both organizations work for the cause of Kurdish nationhood, but they are also known to have engaged in widespread militant activities that have been described as acts of terrorism by NATO and other countries. PKK and PJAK are on the U.S. State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations.

It is a thorny international diplomatic problem. But as always, it would seem that civilians are bearing the brunt of the suffering.