There has been an ongoing occupation in Northern Iraq of Assyrian Christian indigenous lands, largely ignored by the mainstream media, which requires a solution soon.

According to David William Lazar’s American Mesopotamian Organization (AMO), Kurdish tribes close to the ruling Barzani family of the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) have stolen Assyrian Christian lands in Northern Iraq. Director of the Assyrian Democratic Movement Rabee Fareed, Assyrian Aid Society president Ashur Sargon Eskrya, and Assyrian Christian MP Yacoub Yaco state that currently 58 Assyrian villages have been occupied.

The following is an on the ground investigation of the allegations of Kurdish occupation in the Assyrian Christian villages of Kashkawa, Zhouli, and Chamma Rabatka of the Nahla district; the Babelo district; Garbeeesh village in Akre District; and the Barwari district. All districts are part of Duhok, Northern Iraq. Past reports have not named who is responsible for the land theft. This report does for the first time. This includes heads of the KRG government and Western oil companies.

Nahla District

Kashkawa and Zhouli Villages

Assyrian Christian villagers in Nahla possess maps detailing land markings and boundaries in addition to court orders by the Duhok KRG, validating ownership of lands. However, there has been no government enforcement of these decrees.

The Christians in Kashkawa village have already lost three-fourths of their village lands. In Zhouli village, all of their territory is saturated with illegal blue-tarped covered construction by Kurdish villagers.

Blue-tarped constructioni by Kurdish tribes in Zhouli village

Blue-tarped constructioni by Kurdish tribes in Zhouli village

The Kurdish tribe identified as being responsible for this occupation by nearly all Kashkawa and Zhouli residents is that of former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hoshye Zebari, who is the uncle of the former KRG president Masoud Barzani, and Reza Zebari, who is Hoshye Zebari’s cousin.

The former and latter’s friendships in America are interesting to briefly mention.

According to Kurdish sources, Hoshye Zebari is friends with United States Kurdistan representative, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman. Additionally, in an interview with Reza Zebari, Mr. Zebari identified former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Petraeus, as a close personal friend.

Nevertheless, Kashkawa and Zhouli residents averred that peaceful means to stymie the Kurdish occupation are consistently ignored and occasionally responded with extra-judicial violence.

These residents mention an event which was documented by Human Rights Watch wherein the KRG’s secret police organization the Asaysh once forcefully blocked Christians of Nahla from peacefully marching to the Kurdish capital of Erbil in protest of illegal land confiscation.

Past letters by Nahla residents to former KRG president Masoud Barzani requesting the stoppage of land occupation have been left unanswered, according to residents.

One Kashkawa villager explained that prior attempts to enforce court orders were met with unknown heavily armed masked assailants meting out extra-judicial night raids or assassinations in broad daylight. An elderly resident interrupted this villager, opining that these unidentified masked men were Asaysh and Peshmerga from the Zebari tribe. Peshmerga are the militias of the KRG.

Another villager chimed-in, “If we take our land back, we have to fight the Kurdish tribe, Asaysh, Peshmerga, the KRG government. We have no chance.”

According to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), Nahla Christian residents are regularly targeted by the Asaysh. In one specific instance, the AINA claimed the Asaysh coerced residents to sign fake confessions that this harassment never occurred, despite the United Nations and International Red Cross documenting them.

In Kashkawa and Zhouli villages, one can witness Kurdish shepherds inundating the grasslands with sheep so as to tacitly lay claim to the territory. A few Kurdish shepherds with firearms stare at any passer-by as if to challenge anyone to respond to their intrusion.

One of the Kurdish shepherds who stared down our vehicle

One of the Kurdish shepherds who stared down our vehicle

Chamma Rabatka Village

Chamma Rabatka village in Nahla is very tense due to conflict.

Armed Christian paramilitary units, some trained by Sons of Liberty founder Matthew Van Dyke, nervously scan the road separating the Kurdish enclaves of stolen properties with the remaining Assyrian Christian inhabitants.

Like Zhouli and Kashkawa villages, residents have maps and court orders for their estates.

Chamma Rabatka landscape

Chamma Rabatka landscape

Surrounding the area, armed insurgents of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) calmly stroll down roads inundated with PKK graffiti and PKK checkpoints. Turkish shelling of the areas in attacks against the PKK has created deep fear in Christian residents caught in the crossfire.

A Turkish shell hits not far from where we interviewed residents. Immediately afterwards, PKK insurgents calmly strolled down our street as if to send the message the shelling was ineffective.

A Turkish shell hits not far from where we interviewed residents. Immediately afterwards, PKK insurgents calmly strolled down our street as if to send the message the shelling was ineffective.

PKK graffiti

PKK graffiti

The Chamma Rabatka mayor is an elderly Christian with an old gunshot shoulder wound from Kurdish tribesmen. The mayor also claimed a previous beating from a Peshmerga commander.

The Peshmerga and PKK seem to be cooperating or sharing control, at least temporarily, in these areas close to the border. Some can be seen greeting each other.

Residents pointed out that Kurdish tribes regularly target Assyrian Christian mayors in order to coerce cheap land sales or outright abandonment of acreage. The residents here are very hospitable and kind, yet the underlying fear underneath the veneer is palpable.

In the case of Chamma Rabatka, foreign oil companies are proliferating the land encroachment.

Bright flames from oil rigs light the night, while trees and grass have been cleared by Kurdish tribes, in preparation for oil drilling. Paved roads and small pits for rocks and equipment also surround these cleared areas.

One resident identified the oil rigs as belonging to the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) Taqa Oil company.

Further research on oil companies in Northern Iraq has revealed that Assyrian Christian and Yazidee lands have recently become drill sites. Some of the lands were abandoned and immediately drilled when Yazidees and Assyrian Christians fled the Islamic State (IS, or as more commonly referred to by Western media, ISIS).

The profit from the oil revenue generated from underneath these lands in Atrush, Bashiqa, Nahla, Duhok, Shekhan, Lailish, Feshkhabour (also spelled Peshkabir), Nineveh, Mosul and elsewhere go directly to the KRG and foreign petroleum companies. It doesn’t benefit the Yazidees and Christians.

Some of the oil companies responsible are the US’s Aspect Energy, ExxonMobil, and Hunt Oil Company; Canada’s Shamaran Petroleum, the UK’s Gulf Keystone Petroleum, Norway’s DNO, the UAE’s Taqa, and others.

Land being cleared for oil drilling

Land being cleared for oil drilling

Gas flare from an oil rig

Gas flare from an oil rig

Babelo District

According to the Babelo mayor, Assyrian Christian residents were given the land by Presbyterian missionary from Ventura, California, Roger Cumberland.

Mr. Cumberland spent 15 years as a Christian missionary in Duhok and met a similar demise as Christian Missionary and American teacher Jeremiah Small in 2012. Mr. Cumberland was murdered in 1938 by Kurdish extremists.

Mr. Cumberland’s eulogy reads, “This is just another in the long line of martyrdoms that come to those who go into the hard places to witness by word and life to the love of God in Christ.”

Mr. Cumberland’s legacy in Babelo is now being replaced by a new tourism park on the pinnacle of a hill, with a telefrek and incomplete newly constructed apartments. Residents complained that the poor Kurdish villagers residing in Babelo who also were pushed off their lands received compensation while the Assyrian Christians have not.

The individual responsible for the land theft, according to Babelo residents, is a person named Haji Meshoud, who owns Mazi Mall in Duhok. Residents indicated that Haji Meshoud built the tourism project as a middleman for KRG President Nechirvan Idrus Barzani. Nechirvan Idrus Barzani is a nephew of the prior KRG President, Masoud Barzani.

Tourism project in Babelo

Tourism project in Babelo

Unfinished apartments

Unfinished apartments

It is important to also briefly mention that approximately three hundred farmers in Ainkawa, Erbil, have not received compensation for their lands that were expropriated for the Ainkawa Airport. The airport is currently administered by KRG President, Nechirvan Idrus Barzani.

Akre District

In Garbeesh village and other areas in Akre, the theft of lands was violent. This disproves the idea that this land theft is simply squatting because it entails extrajudicial means with episodes of extreme violence. Several Assyrian Christians, including the Georgees family, lost several relatives in conflict with Kurdish tribes over lands. The former mayor of Akre was also assassinated.

Berwari District

In Berwari, it’s the same story. Assyrian Christians have maps and court orders. As in Chamma Rabatka, the PKK presence here is strong, and Turkish shelling is detrimentally affecting Berwari Christian residents.

A river on Assyrian Christian property is fenced off by Kurdish tribes and protected by armed PKK. Additionally, as indicated in a 2008 US Commission on International Religious Freedom report, one may witness Kurdish tribes diverting water resources away from Assyrian Christian lands to coerce relocation.

The mayor of Berwari asserted this was a regular tactic by Kurdish tribes.

River fenced off

River fenced off

In one interview with a Berwari Christian resident, he vehemently complained that when he requested a Kurdish tribal head to reprimand a member of the tribe who stole his land, the tribal leader offered an incredulous settlement. This interviewee exclaimed, “They stole my land and then offered my land back if I pay more than its actual value!”

Residents have fingered the culprits of land theft in this region to a Kurdish tribe related to a Peshmerga, General Sheikh Umar from Berifqa, who is close to Mansour Barzani, the son of former KRG president Masoud Barzani.

A second Kurdish tribe currently stealing lands in Berwari is from the Adel Tawfiq Beg tribe, related to Kurdish Emir, Bader Khan Beg, who committed genocide against Assyrian Christians in the 1840s.

The Other Perspective

The following interviews were attempts to hear the opposing side of the argument.

In a Swedish documentary of an Assyrian Christian family whose lands were stolen by Kurdish tribes, Falah Mustafa Bakir, Foreign Minister of Kurdistan and a friend of popular Code Pink activist Medea Benajmin, was interviewed.

He stated it is the Kurds’ right to steal Assyrian Christian lands and they will continue to do so.

Requests for a follow up interview to see if the land theft issue could be resolved peacefully were ignored by Falah Mustafa Bakir.

It is ironic to note that Falih Mustafa Bakir is a proponent for the occupation of Assyrian Christian indigenous lands, yet his family members are shareholders in the luxurious newly constructed Atlantic Apartments of Erbil. The complex was created via loan to Claremont Group from OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) on the condition that its creation respects indigenous land rights.

Tribal head Reza Zebari responded positively to an interview request. He provided his personal phone number and ordered us to contact him directly if any of his tribe occupies Assyrian Christian lands “without the approval of the courts.”

However, Assyrian Christians indicated they received the same promise from Reza Zebari beforehand, with no action. Others asked, “What will he [Reza Zebari] do different now and what about those lands that have been taken in the past despite court orders?”

Reza Zebari, tribal head (left), with the author (right)

Reza Zebari, tribal head (left), with the author (right)

Interviews with Kurdish occupiers in the Nahla district were opaquely similar.

A few claimed they’ve always resided on the lands, though the construction seemed new. Others feigned ignorance that the lands were previously owned, despite being shown court orders. While others boldly asserted the lands belong to Kurds by right of history or demographics.

One Kurdish settler averred, “The one who takes it, uses the land, owns it.”

Another Kurdish family of the Zebari tribe pointed toward a relative’s gravesite, claiming their ancestors resided in Nahla before Christians. The grave was clearly a Muslim grave as it had two grave stones instead of one. We couldn’t verify how old the grave was, though.

A different member of this same family justified his family’s construction on Assyrian Christian land by asserting that a magistrate in Akre had assured them that Nahla “does not belong to Christians. Nahla belongs to Muslims.”

Members of Zebari tribe occupying land in Nahla

Members of Zebari tribe occupying land in Nahla

Gravesite of member of Zebari tribe

Gravesite of member of Zebari tribe

It is important to note that this same Kurdish family’s home was bulldozed sometime recently. Yet they are rebuilding. A couple Assyrian Christians in Nahla stated that the private bodyguards of former KRG president Masoud Barzani performed this act due to international pressure.

This Kurdish family has stated that they are willing to reach a financial settlement if the Assyrian Christian mayor of Nahla agrees. The mayor refused.

Zebari tribe home destroyed

Zebari tribe home destroyed

Summary of Findings

As an experienced investigative journalist and researcher for human rights issues who has worked in an unofficial capacity directly or indirectly in prior research and investigations with Human Rights Watch, Middle Eastern NGOs, ETS (Educational Testing Services), former US Lt. Navy Commander Charles Swift, Amnesty International, and more; it is my firm belief that based upon the plethora of evidence and testimonies I observed firsthand, it is undeniable that the claims of Kurdish tribes stealing Assyrian Christian lands made by the American Mesopotamian Organization and David Lazar, are authentic.

The occupation of Assyrian Christian lands by Kurdish tribes is still occurring in Northern Iraq and is ignored by the mainstream media and unknown or also ignored by activists against occupations such as Kashmir and Palestine.

The majority of interviewees stated that the United Nations, international human rights organizations, the US State Department, and others have all sent representatives in the past over this land theft, yet nothing has ever been done to effectively halt the occupation or reverse its damage.

Additionally, the lack of KRG government protection of Assyrian Christians against extrajudicial violence and refusal to enforce court orders appears blatantly intentional.

Although the process of occupation has slackened significantly recently, it persists unabated. It is expected by some to pick up pace when the war against the IS ends. And it is tacitly approved of by the leadership and government of Kurdistan.

Oil, tourism, and real estate interests, domestically and abroad, are profiting from this unspoken occupation of indigenous lands.

Finally, the unsubstantiated yet plentiful accusations that Kurdistan’s ruling Barzani family and Western oil companies are profiting from the recent genocide of Christians by the IS by drilling underneath Assyrian Christian lands, in combination with the allegations of Asaysh and Peshmerga behind extrajudicial acts against Assyrian Christians, is deeply disturbing and absolutely necessitates serious future investigation to refute or authenticate.

It is pertinent to also highlight that South Carolina native and freelance political lobbyist Kimberly Brown submitted an incomplete portion of the above evidence to staffers of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. This occurred prior his unscheduled visit to KRG President Nechirvan Idrus Barzani on July 3, 2018. Senator Graham praised the KRG for its respect for minority rights in that meeting.

[Editor’s note, December 6, 2019: As originally published, this article stated that the author has “worked directly and indirectly in prior research and investigations with” Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a number of other organizations on human rights issues. A representative of HRW contacted Foreign Policy Journal to object to this characterization while confirming that the author did work with one of the organization’s researchers on the ground in Jerash refugeee camp in Jordan in an attempt to bring human rights abuses to light. Accordingly, the text has been edited to read “directly or indirectly” and to specify that his working relationship was in an unofficial capacity. Additionally, an earlier version of this note mistakenly referred to the camp as being in Gaza (it’s also known as “Gaza camp”), which was entirely the fault of the editor.]