Domiz Refugee Camp and the Blustery Day (March 2013)

[This post is being published out of order: the story is from March 2013]

From September to November 2012 and again for two weeks in March 2013, I worked in Domiz Refugee Camp, a few kilometres outside Duhok, in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of northern Iraq.

A view of the city of Duhok, Duhok Governorate, Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Iraq:

A view of the city of Duhok, Duhok Governorate, Kurdistan Autonomous Region, Iraq

At the time, the camp was expanding like a child who outgrows her clothes faster than her parents can buy new ones. The local government institutions and local and foreign humanitarian organisations were struggling to keep up with the needs of the ever-increasing numbers of refugees crossing the border from Syria. They made a serious effort, though. There was even a garbage service in place, though the truck sometimes encountered difficulties getting around the camp:

Garbage truck stuck in the mud in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

Some areas of the camp had sprung up haphazardly during one of several sudden surprise influxes of refugees. Having not been planned out ahead of time, these areas had worse conditions than most of the camp, like these makeshift latrines installed in an area that flooded as soon as the first rains fell:

Ill-placed latrines in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

In the final weeks of my first stay in Duhok, I had the great fortune of being invited by the Directorate of Health (DoH) to offer my input on the design for a new health centre to be built by the Kurdish government and jointly managed with MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières aka Doctors Without Borders) in Domiz Refugee Camp. I met with their engineer, and over the next two weeks we passed designs back and forth by email until we had a final version that satisfied everybody.

The construction process was managed entirely by the DoH. The Yazidi contractors they hired were soon breaking ground and setting the foundation for a new health centre in a spacious area on a hill overlooking the camp, a significant improvement on the cramped, makeshift health centre housed in prefabricated containers right across from the UNHCR refugee registration offices in one of the busiest and most crowded parts of the camp:

Crowds fill the area between the MSF primary health centre and UNHCR refugee registration area, November 2012

The cramped pharmacy in the old health centre:

Cramped pharmacy in the undersized MSF primary health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

Starting the new health centre:

Beginnings of the foundation of the new primary health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp
A member of the Yazidi construction team takes a smoke break from building the foundation of the new health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp
Two MSF drivers admiring the new health centre foundation

By the time I left Domiz Camp on 28 November 2012 the foundation work was just about done but, sadly, I wouldn’t be there to see the rest of the centre built. I spent the next six months splitting my time between Kirkuk and Hawija. These two cities were a world apart from peaceful Duhok. Suicide bombers, exploding vehicles, roadside bombs, and armed attacks were commonplace in these two cities, though they were never aimed at us. However, in March 2013 our entire team was relocated from Kirkuk to Erbil (the incredibly safe capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) for security reasons for about three weeks. Rather than twiddle my thumbs at a desk in Erbil, I returned to Duhok to lend a hand for two weeks. Arriving back to the camp after a three and a half month absence, the first thing I wanted to see was the new health centre, now in use:

March 2013: the new primary health centre is up and running in Domiz Refugee Camp

The new health centre was a tremendous improvement, but the camp population hadn’t stopped growing, so the building was already a size too small by the time it opened. Part of my job during my short stay would be to order prefabricated sandwich-panel portable buildings and install them on the health centre grounds to house some of the health services such as a planned child malnutrition ward. I made the simple floorplans with advice from the medical team, ordered the buildings, and soon afterwards we began receiving them:

Lowering the prefabricated malnutrition building into place

Just a few metres from the health centre, there were a series of modular tents left behind by a German medical organisation. MSF was using these tents as temporary medical facilities while we planned to build something more permanent:

Tents helped MSF handle the overflow of patients at the new health centre in Domiz Refugee Camp

On 16 March I was at the camp, as usual. It was a breezy morning, and as the hours went by the breeze became a strong wind. As the wind increased in power, the tents began swaying. I would learn later that day, on closer inspection, that the German medical organisation had not installed the anchors correctly for the guy lines. Not knowing this, in the early afternoon I and a couple of helpers set about weighting down the tents with cement breezeblocks and checking that the guy lines were taut.

Placing cement breezeblocks to weigh down the tents during a building wind storm

Well, the wind kept howling and pretty soon it was a full-blown blustery day in Domiz Refugee Camp. I noticed a slack guy line at the corner where the larger consultation tent met the stabilisation tent, so I bent down to tighten it. As I was doing this, I caught a sudden rush of movement in my peripheral vision to the left of me, and instinctively dropped to the ground. My body naturally rolled without any conscious decision to do so; I watched canvas flying over me, metal poles passing just inches from my body, as the enormous consultation tent lifted, flipped, and twisted. It carried the smaller consultation tent, stabilisation tent, and central hall with it through the air, along with dozens of cement blocks we’d added for weight, and the medical examination tables, desks, and chairs that were inside. I was relieved to be unhurt: just a little dirty from the fall, my shirt torn, and my phone no longer in my pocket – an acceptable outcome, considering the circumstances. I took a photo of my torn shirt when I got home:

My shirt, torn as I rolled on the ground while the consultation tent flew over me

One of the health centre cleaners was deeply saddened by the destruction and needed a moment to settle her emotions:

Cleaner fights back tears as she ponders the destruction of the medical tents

I made a sketch of the tent setup for my incident report at the time. In the photo below, I’ve marked a small circle where I was working on the rope when the 6 x 10 metre consultation tent flew over me. The tents labelled 1 through 4 ended up in the area marked “4 tents mangled”:

Sketch of the medical tents in their original and post-storm positions

By late afternoon we’d given up hope of getting anything productive done with the tents that day, so we readied ourselves to leave. We climbed into the vehicle but, as we began to drive away, I spotted a man walking among the tents so I got out and spoke with him. I could tell he was hiding something, so I asked him to open his jacket. He did so, revealing the electrical cabling he was trying to steal. He returned it and left, and as I walked back to the vehicle a loud noise took over the skies, and out of nowhere grains of sand began hitting my face. I rushed to the car and within seconds we were in the middle of a sandstorm. We opened the vehicle doors to let in some refugees caught in the storm nearby, then watched as the 6 x 10 metre triage/waiting tent stood up on end for a moment before flying across the yard and catching on a streetlight. In the sketch above, it’s tent number 5 that flew to the top left corner of the sketch – over 50 metres.

In this photo, the tent doesn’t appear very large, but have a look at the people to the left and note that it’s caught on a full-sized streetlight:

A 6x10 metre tent blown straddles a streetlamp in Domiz Refugee Camp, 16 March 2013

At the end of the blustery day, only two tents remained standing, one of which was damaged and later repaired with poles salvaged from the wreckage. Here, between the two remaining standing tents, you can see the large footprint of the consultation tent that flew over me:

Between the two remaining standing tents, you can see the large footprint of the consultation tent that flew over me

Removing cement breezeblocks from inside the destroyed tents:

Removing cement breezeblocks from inside the destroyed tents

Cleaning up after the storm:

Cleaning up after the storm at the primary health centre, Domiz Refugee Camp, March 2013

Tent poles and posts sheared off:

Tent poles and posts sheared off
Tent poles and posts sheared off

As we cleared the rubble, we found my phone wrapped up inside the remains of the consultation tent a far distance from where I’d been standing. The phone, which I’d bought in 2011 in Côte d’Ivoire, still works to this day (2015).

Nokia 1280 found amongst the rubble

We took down the isolation tent (which, though still standing, was damaged), found replacement poles among the wreckage, and put it back up next to its last surviving relative:

Two surviving tents at the MSF-supported primary health centre, Domiz Refugee Camp, March 2013

The tents weren’t the only things to be tossed around like children’s playthings. The prefab malnutrition building pictured earlier had tried to escape during the storm:

The prefab malnutrition building tried to escape during the storm

I measured the distance from point to point and made the sketch below, showing that one corner of the malnutrition building shifted 8 metres (~26 feet), while the other corner shifted 11 metres (~36 feet) as the building slid and rotated. respectively.

Sketch of the malnutrition building in its original and post-storm positions

Immediately following the sandstorm, dozens of people were rushed to the health centre, mostly suffering from breathing problems caused by inhaling sand, and a small number of injuries from flying objects. The refugee homes were mostly untouched, as they were lower to the ground and securely fastened.

By noon the following day, it was perfect spring weather in Domiz Refugee Camp:

Perfect spring weather in Domiz Refugee Camp, 17 March 2013

Like the ill-fated tents, this kid flipped head over heels to get over the fence, showing me his parkour skills:

A Syrian refugee boy performs a gate vault, a move frequently used by traceurs in Parkour

Lastly, here are two random happy photos. A father with his children taking a break from setting up his new tent on a cement base, and a pair of siblings I bumped into a number of times in the camp:

A father with his children taking a break from setting up his new tent on a cement base in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012
Refugee children I frequently saw in Domiz Refugee Camp, November 2012

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