Shortly after the start of this year's war in Iraq, Imad Barwari calmly drove his family from their home in Dahuk to their ancestral village. "We went because we knew Saddam and what he did in the past. We lost thousands of people, we didn't want to lose more," Barwari said.
Imad and fifteen family members gathered in a 3-room village cottage in the mountains along the border with Turkey to wait out the war. Satellite television equipment was brought from Dahuk and installed.
Nasreen Barwari, Imad's sister, said that their flight in 2003 was very different to their flight in 1991 when they fled on foot. At that time, she said, she and her three brothers walked for three days ahead of pursuing Iraqi military forces, avoiding the main roads. A few years later they learnt they had walked over a hill that was mined.
"I had to leave my parents and a younger brother behind who were unable to make the journey on foot," Nasreen Barwari said. "We could hear the guns. We fled in panic without saying farewell."
During this year's military action, most of Dahuk's 200,000
residents fled to rural areas, according to Stafford Clarry, Humanitarian Affairs Adviser to the Kurdish authorities in Erbil.
About 40 percent of the populations of the other main cities of Erbil and Sulemaniyah also fled, Clarry said. Unlike 1991, this time there was credible information available from satellite television channels and from local sources. "This access to critical information greatly helped families to make more informed decisions on whether to remain or flee," Clarry said.
"So there was no panic."
Most of those recently displaced in the three northern governorates lived in the area and did not flee far from their homes, according to Clarry. Some went as little as ten kilometers away, others a two-hour drive into mountainous areas. As the war began in late March, however, a number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) arrived in the region, mainly from Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul, he said.
For Imad Barwari, the occupation of Baghdad by coalition forces, followed shortly by Kirkuk and Mosul, was the signal to return home. He and his family returned to Dahuk in the same manner they had left, calmly driving home in an orderly manner.
"We went back after they [U.S. forces] controlled Baghdad," Imad Barwari said. "This meant that the war was over."
According to the UN's Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which is responsible for coordinating the humanitarian response to IDPs in northern Iraq, life has returned to normal for most people in Kurdish-controlled areas and inhabitants can now travel freely to most nearby regions formerly under control of the Government of Iraq, such as Kirkuk and Khanaqeen.
In a report released on Tuesday, UNOPS said that virtually all of the estimated 300,000 people displaced by the recent conflict had returned to their home areas, "whether they came from the north itself or areas previously under control of the Government of Iraq."
Last week, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that the harvest in the three northern governorates of Erbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyah would not be disrupted as farmers in these areas had not been displaced by the fighting. FAO added that the harvest was expected to produce about 500,000 mt of wheat and barley.
But the return of the estimated one million mainly Kurdish people displaced mainly from Kirkuk and Mosul by "Arabisation" campaigns during the past decade is thought to be minimal, according to UNOPS. The scheme cleared housing areas of Kurds in favour of Arabs imported mainly from the centre and south. UNOPS is currently conducting an assessment to determine the exact number of people involved, whether people wish to return or not
and their key needs.
But news reports suggest returning Kurds are reclaiming property from Arabs - often violently. A five-day assessment of Mosul and surrounding areas by the NGO World Vision revealed thousands of displaced Arabs living in grim, unsanitary conditions. They had all been forced to abandon their homes after they were reclaimed by returning Kurds, World Vision said.
Among them World Vision found 550 displaced sleeping in the guard quarters of the former presidential palace in Mosul.
"All they had were some blankets on the concrete floor," World Vision senior relief administrator Dr Doris Knoechel said. "They lacked clothes, food, hygiene and a number of children were sick."
In addition to the palace grounds, World Vision staff found other displaced people living in abandoned buildings and on wasteland in tents made from sacks. In some cases they had no access to clean water or toilets. "Mothers are very concerned about the health of their children, especially as it just
gets hotter and hotter," Dr Knoechel said.
On 17 April UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed concern about reports of murder, looting and forced expulsion of Arabs in Northern Iraq and appealed to all concerned to respect fundamental human rights principles, including the right to live free from intimidation.
Information officer with the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq ( UNOHCI) Sonia Dumont, speaking from the northern Iraq city of Erbil, said that emergency assistance to remaining IDPs in the three northern governorates was under control. However the situation in Mosul and Kirkuk was not as clear as assessments were still going on. She said in the village of Byara near the Iranian border, a tented camp was being set up to house some of those returning to the area.
The region had been a stronghold of the Islamic group Ansar al-Islam which was routed during heavy bombing during the recent war. Now villagers were returning to their houses but more than 80 had been completely destroyed in the bombardment and another 100 were in too precarious a condition to be safe to live in. Dumont said 450 families had already returned to Byara but
more were expected.
For those who did not have houses to return to, UNOPS had erected 110 tents to provide temporary shelter. Some of the displaced people were returning to the region after as many as eight years while others had only shifted away during the bombing, Dumont said.
Meanwhile in the south of Iraq, work is still going on to assess the level of internal displacement. Hubert Binon, the head of office in Basra for the United Nations International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said that it was often difficult to get in touch with IDPs.
Some people were living away from their normal homes but did not consider themselves IDPs as they were staying with family.
However IOM was telling them that it could help if they wanted to go back to their place of origin. Binon said that while the situation was not as clear as in Afghanistan or Africa, he was convinced there were IDPs in the south of Iraq.
Many people had sought refuge in the countryside due to the fighting and others had shifted because of the collapse of the economy and business, he said. Three NGOs, ACTED, GOAL and Save the Children, were involved with IDP work in the region and IOM had set up a base in Basra from Monday.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions