Reminders of the last occupants of camp K1 in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk are only visible on the murals at the main gate leading into the compound: Iraqi soldiers saluting the flag, pointing their weapons or being cheered on by grateful families.
"Going back home? That would be suicide. The Islamists would cut our throats straight away," says Khalil Hafif Ismam. The fear of this Mandaean refugee sums up that of one of the oldest yet most decimated communities in Mesopotamia.
The Kurdish flag is flying high in the wind from the rooftop of an old brick house inside Kirkuk’s millennia-old citadel, as Rashid – a stern-looking man sitting behind a machine gun – monitors the surroundings.
Two teams struggle to find an olive under one of the 11 cups displayed on a tray. The traditional game sin-u-serf
(tray and cup in Kurdish) is only played during the Muslim fasting month. In one of Iraq’s most violent cities, it is nothing less than a challenge to death.
Driving into the city of Kirkuk, one is greeted by the view of a huge sea of grey concrete houses from which laundry has been hung out to dry in the wind and be blackened by smoke rising from the surrounding oil wells.