In 2012, Ashraf City was home to more than 3,000 Iranian refugees living in Iraq. Today, only 100 remain. The rest have been forcibly relocated to Camp Liberty, a disused American military base roughly 80 times smaller than Ashraf and surrounded by 12ft-high concrete walls, barbed wire, armed guards, searchlights, surveillance cameras and eavesdropping devices.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has described the camp, where two deadly attacks have taken place this year, as tantamount to a prison. The liquidation of Ashraf City and the residents’ internment at Camp Liberty was overseen by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) under the leadership of Martin Kobler, whose term ended earlier this year. The refugees’ fate remains uncertain.
The following is a personal account of the February 9th Camp Liberty massacre – which left 8 dead and 100 wounded – written by Majid Mohades, 29, and originally published by the Ashraf Campaign (ASHCAM). The attack was carried out by the Iranian-sponsored "Mokhtar Army," which is widely considered to be a front-group of Iraqi Hezbollah.
Living at Camp Liberty in Iraq, I never imagined that I would wake to the sounds of explosions.
But that was exactly what jerked me awake on the dawn of February 9. A loud and terrifying noise shook the very foundations of the trailer in which I slept. I sat up, blinking repeatedly and trying to adjust my vision to the early morning gloom.
It can’t be, I told myself. This is a safe haven, remember? It must just have been a bad dream. But then I heard a commotion and realised that others had been woken as well. I had the ominous feeling that something awful was about to happen.
A second explosion sounded, led by a whistling noise that could only belong to a rocket. This one was all too real. I wasn’t imagining things.
“Get out the trailer!” somebody yelled. “We’re under attack! Take cover!”
But where to go? I acted on impulse and ran from the trailer. The rough gravel that coated the ground dug into the soles of my feet, but I barely noticed the pain. Only one thing occupied my mind: there was nowhere to go.
The next explosion sounded even closer than the previous one, and I could actually hear the impact of shrapnel as it tore through the flimsy walls of the trailers. My mind was racing. I had to do something, so I dropped to the ground. With all the bunkers already jam-packed, it was the only option I had.
This wasn’t my first experience of a terrorist attack. Ashraf City, where all of us had lived before being uprooted and sent to Camp Liberty, had been attacked by the Iranian regime’s henchmen many times, bombed by airplanes and even targeted by long range missiles on several occasions. Yet because of Ashraf’s vastness and its solid facilities, never have such assaults resulted in serious damage. In contrast, the only means of protection that Liberty provides are small concrete bunkers at one per twenty to thirty people.
Never before had I felt this vulnerable. Another explosion accentuated that very point.
My mind flashed back to a few months earlier, before the relocation of the sixth group of Ashraf City residents to Camp Liberty, when Martin Kobler, then Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), had visited Ashraf to coerce the residents into leaving their homes. I had personally met him at the time, and I still remembered him berating the city’s residents for failing to cooperate with the authorities overseeing the eviction.
“Your lives are at risk in Ashraf,” he had argued, urging us to move to Liberty as soon as possible, where he promised we would be safe and would have no reason to fear for our lives. The next blast reminded me of how absurd that notion was.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“There’s room in one of the bunkers,” he said.
The man helped me up and we headed straight for the bunker he had indicated. No sooner had we entered the bunker than the next rocket exploded a few feet behind us, filling the air with a thick cloud of dust and smoke. My ears started buzzing and I felt a burning pain on my left arm and head. I teetered on the edge of unconsciousness and fought hard to maintain my balance. I crouched to fight the dizziness, though there wasn’t much room for movement inside the bunker.
My wounds were minor. Others had not been so lucky. The dim light didn’t allow for much detail, but I could make out a figure writhing on the floor and clutching at his right arm, from which his life blood was gushing out at a terrifying rate. Another was holding on to a finger that remained attached to his hand only by a thin strip of skin, the garish wound exposing flesh, sinew and bone.
Where are you now, Martin Kobler, I thought, to see the fruit of your efforts?
The bombardment lasted for many more minutes. We waited it out, our breaths misting and mingling in the early morning chill, all of us hoping against hope that the others had found safe refuge. I dared not contemplate how my other friends had fared.
After what seemed like an eternity, the barrage ended and silence sunk in. By then, the man with the injured arm had lost so much blood that his moaning had died down to no more than a feeble whimper. A stretcher was brought and he was carried away. The bunker was evacuated shortly afterwards.
Still in shock, I sat down on the lower ledge of the bunker’s sidewall, staring at the reflection of the rising sun cast into the puddle of blood that had gathered on ground. I was still trying to process the events of that fateful morning.
A jumble of feelings swarmed inside me, but one outweighed all the others: the feeling of being betrayed. I felt betrayed by the United Nations, for breaking its promise of security and welfare. I felt betrayed by the United States, for having neglected its obligation to all of us.
By all accounts, this incident should never have taken place. But it did. And the role of one person stood out in all of this: Martin Kobler.
Why had he so fervently insisted that we be relocated to this camp, while there was no true guarantee that we would be protected? Why was he constantly voicing his pledge to solve the humanitarian crisis that the former residents of Ashraf City are facing, while he was visiting the Iranian regime’s ambassador in Iraq every other day? Why did he never condemn the inhumane constraints that the Iraqi government has imposed on the residents of Ashraf and Liberty?
Truly, whose interests did Martin Kobler serve during his stint as Head of UNAMI? The United Nations’? The refugees’? The Iraqi government’s? The Iranian regime’s?
You tell me.