A picture taken from behind a fence shows Iraqi Kurdish fans holding a Kurdistan flag bearing a slogan as an Iraqi national flag flies during the AFC Cup final football match between Arbil club and Kuwait SC in the Iraqi city of Arbil on November 3, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED)
CAMP DOMIZ, Iraq: Key rings and umbrellas in the colors of the Kurdish flag are on sale at a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where thousands of Syrian Kurds who have fled war at home are enjoying the freedom to flaunt their ethnic identity like never before.
Long-oppressed, Syria’s Kurds see the conflict ravaging their country as an opportunity to win the kind of liberty enjoyed by their ethnic kin in Iraq who live autonomously from the federal capital in Baghdad.
The war between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel fighters has so far driven some 30,000 Syrian Kurds over the border to Camp Domiz, where breeze-blocks are gradually replacing canvas as residents hunker down for winter and beyond.
A further 200-300 people are arriving each day, according to international disaster relief charity ShelterBox, which is helping put up tents.
Despite being displaced, many of the camp’s occupants draw comfort from being in a country where they can at least speak their own language and fly the Kurdish flag without fear of reprisal.
“Even if we didn’t have bread and water we’d be at ease here because we’re at home with our leader Massoud Barzani. Dirt turns to gold in his hands,” said Naja Hussein Omar, praising the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, whose image hangs on walls around the camp.
“We want an independent state like any other. Where is our state?”
Divided between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, the Kurdish people number more than 20 million and are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without a state.
In Syria they make up about 10 percent of the population – the country’s largest ethnic minority.
At the camp, posters advertise a concert to raise money for the people of “Western Kurdistan” – the name Kurds use to refer to the area of Syria they claim as their own.
“God willing we will get another Kurdistan in Syria, and God willing in Turkey as well,” said Ibrahim Abdel-Aziz Ali, who fled his hometown of Hassakeh several months ago after being drafted into the army.
Not everyone is so sure.
Umran Mohammad said all he and other Kurds of his generation sought was equal rights within a united Syria.
“Our country is Syria. We don’t want another Kurdistan,” he said, sitting at a table in the cafe he runs out of a blue shelter made from tarpaulin. “The president can be Kurdish or Alawite or Arab or whatever, as long as it’s through elections.”
If Assad falls, the Kurdish quest for self-rule is unlikely to be smooth.
Already, tensions between two main Syrian Kurdish groups, the Kurdish National Council and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have at times threatened to degenerate into intra-Kurdish conflict.
Earlier this year, Barzani brought them together in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they signed a pact to form a joint council, presenting a united front for Kurdish interests in Syria.
But the KNC has repeatedly accused the PYD of failing to keep its side of the bargain, saying its People’s Defense Units militia continue to set up checkpoints and impose their agenda by force.
The KNC was forged from more than a dozen smaller Syrian Kurdish parties, with Barzani’s blessing, and is broadly accepted by the political mainstream, unlike the PYD, which is seen as tied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK.
The PYD says it has nothing more than ideological affinity with the PKK, which has fought a 28-year separatist conflict in Turkey that has claimed more than 40,000 lives. But Syrian Kurds at the camp use the two acronyms interchangeably.
“There are loads of PKK people here but they don’t dare say ‘I am PKK,’” said 24-year-old Zenar Ali Abd, who left the Syrian district of Malikiya because he faced army conscription.