An eight-year-old boy drew the shadow of moustache on his face. Why? “I miss my football, my home, the fields, everything,” he answers, adding “my mother told me I could not be here unless I was a man with moustache.”
In the marked increase of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in June, the Turkmen have been caught in the crossfire. Then came the armed opposition groups led by ISIS which took control of large swathes of the country's Sunni provinces.
For their part, Turkmen have been affected badly by the threats of ISIS militants as they became an open target in the predominantly Turkmen cities of Tuz Khurmatu, Mosul, Diyala and Tal Afar.
Hassan left Birawchili, the village about 85 km south of Kirkuk six weeks ago when many Turkmen villages were attacked. 25 men were killed, and about 150 families left the village to be among the tens of thousands of displaced Turkmens reaching Kirkuk and looking for a safe haven.
Yahya Abu Mohammed, a farmer who lost his brother and sister-in-law on that night, said that “at first we thought we had been attacked because we were Shia. But the attacks against Turkmens made us believe we were attacked because we were Turkmens.”
The displaced families have dozens of sad stories to tell, but it was astonishing to hear Sukaina, the mother of five children, saying that despite the problems “we should remember the beauty of life.” She added that “being displaced and losing everything is not the end. One day we will be back.”
Hassan, with his drawn-on moustache, stood up and said, “I am a man now. I will help you to go back.”
In the yard of the unfinished house where ten displaced Turkmen families were settled, three children were trying to collect eggs, which fell and broke.
The scene was reminiscent of another in 1995, when Iraq was under foreign blockade. A woman with a tired face entered a supermarket asking the price of eggs, which was higher than her salary as a teacher. She said that her three-year-old son was suffering from malnutrition, and the doctor had told her to give him two eggs a day.
She began to bargain. “Take my heart and give me ten eggs,” she said.
At a checkpoint north of Kirkuk this week hundreds of displaced Turkmen families from Telafer, about 500 km northwest of Baghdad and 50 km west of Mosul, were on their way to Kerbala, long and hard under the 50 degrees heat.
The three-hour road between Kirkuk and Baghdad is cut, and the other road by the Iraqi-Iranian border takes about 12 hours. Most of the families were on board trucks and very tired. Torhan Abdel-Rahman, deputy chief of the Kirkuk police, protected the families until they were on the safe road.
Two children died and were buried near the checkpoint. Tired mothers began shouting, “please take our children. We cannot bear to see them die from hunger and thirst. Take our hearts in return for eggs, milk and water.”
According to human rights organisations, 60 children from Telafer died on the way. Official sources say that more than 1,250,000 Iraqis have been displaced since June 9, among them tens of thousands of Turkmens.
Many Turkmen politicians say that targeting Turkmens is genocide, and that the community’s towns and cities, called Turkmeneli, the region of the Turkmens, is oil-rich and is being targeted for this reason.
For three days, trucks loaded with thousands of Turkmens from Telafer have been going through Kirkuk to Kerbala.
Amidst the tragedy of the displaced Turkmens has come the tragedy of Christians forced out of Mosul, with many Muslim families elsewhere saying that they would be willing to host them.
For centuries, Iraqis have lived together regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity. However, the power-sharing system brought about by the US occupation has dragged the country into civil war and violence that has killed hundreds of thousands, among them women and children.
Turkmen activists have condemned Turkey’s AKP government for ignoring the tragedy. Amera Ali, a Turkmen activist who lives in Sweden, published on Facebook a letter entitled, “where are you [Turkish prime minister Tayep Recep] Erdogan?”
In the letter, Ali said that “we, the Turkmen, refuse to divide Iraq. But if this division is to take place, where will you be? You should help us find a safe haven.” She added that “Erdogan is going everywhere, speaking about Gaza, Egypt, even Africa, yet he has not spoken about the Turkmens of Iraq.”
Until somebody wakes up to the genocide being committed against the Turkmens of Iraq, mothers will continue to try to exchange their hearts for eggs.
*Nermeen Al Mufti is an Iraqi journalist based in Iraq
*This story was first published at Ahram Weekly.