After spending three weeks in the freezing forests on the Belarus-Poland border, Hussein Khodr, his wife, and his mother found themselves back at square one, an Iraqi camp for displaced Yazidis.
But despite the “cold” and “hunger” of their arduous and fruitless journey, Khodr dreams of making the trip out once again.
The family was among 400 Iraqis, most of them Kurds, who returned home Thursday on a repatriation flight.
Between visas and daily costs, Khodr ended up spending over $10,000 in Belarus, without ever making it beyond the frontier into the European Union.
At the Polish border “we tried to cross the barbed wire. There were sensors that would send signals to the Polish police. They arrived and prevented us from crossing”, he recounted from Sharya camp near Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The family spent 20 days camped out in the wet forest at the borders. “We were hungry, we were thirsty, we were cold,” the 36-year-old said.
Seven fellow Yazidis managed to make it to Germany, but Khodr’s mother Inaam, who suffers from rheumatism, could not walk the long hours necessary to make the crossing.
“We were not looking for luxury, we wanted to escape from our miserable living conditions,” Inaam, 57, said.
Seated on a foam mattress in her sparsely furnished tent, she recalled a life punctuated by tragedies, bookended by the recent history of Iraq and its Yazidi minority.
Subscribing to an ancient monotheistic faith, the Yazidis were brutalized by the Islamic State group, who consider them heretics.
‘We will leave again’
Widowed at the age of 20 when her husband was killed in 1986 during the Iraq-Iran war, Inaam raised her son alone and said he miraculously survived two attacks in 2005 and 2007.
She also recounted how they fled in 2014 when IS fighters entered Sinjar and how they returned to find their house reduced to rubble.
Khodr said he went into debt to be able to leave Iraq and even sold his wife’s and mother’s gold.
For the last seven years, they lived in a tent, scorched by the heat of the summers and inundated by the torrential rains in the winter.
To survive, he did odd jobs and made some money repairing cell phones.
“As soon as we get some money we will leave again. I will not abandon the idea of emigrating.”
But next time, Khodr said he will try to find another route because “we are banned from going to Belarus for the next five years”.
The West accuses Belarus of bringing in would-be migrants — mostly from the Middle East — and taking them to the borders with EU members Poland and Lithuania with promises of an easy crossing.
Belarus has denied the claim and criticized the EU for not taking in the migrants.
Since the start of the crisis in the summer, at least 11 migrants have died, according to Polish media, while thousands — mostly Iraqi Kurds — are still stranded at the border.
But many in Arbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, still yearn to leave.
“If I had the chance, I would leave today before tomorrow,” said Ramadan Hamad, a 25-year-old cobbler who mends shoes on the side of a road for a lack of a shop.
“We have no future and the economic situation has become very difficult,” he said.
“I know that with illegal emigration, I have a 90 percent chance of dying. But at least on arriving, I will live in a society that respects the individual.”
The migrant crisis has “tainted” the image Kurdistan wants to portray of itself as the “most secure area of Iraq”, said Adel Bakawan, the director of the French Centre for Research on Iraq.
The flux of migrants is due to economic difficulties, but also geopolitical uncertainty caused by the US withdrawal from Iraq, fears of a jihadist resurgence and the Turkish conflict with insurgents from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), he said.
In an unstable Iraq, Kurdistan always projected a facade of prosperity and stability, hoping to attract foreign investments to a region that boasts five-star hotels, luxury developments and private schools and universities.
But “there is only one social class that has access to any of this”, Bakawan said.
“A young Kurd can’t go on vacation, can’t buy a house, can’t go to a private school to complete his studies in English nor find a job that will give him any social status.”