The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iraq wants thousands displaced by the ISIS war to go home. They may be killed if they do.

Video from Dec. 7 and 8 shows displacement camps in northern Iraq that the government is pushing to close. (Video: Louisa Loveluck/The Washington Post)
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DUJAIL, Iraq — The homes destroyed by the Islamic State are still smashed. The group's bullets are still lodged in the sand berms.

Hundreds of villagers perished here fighting the militants. Many more were displaced in the violence or fled in the aftermath, fearing they would be tarred as sympathizers of the Islamic State, either because they were or because their relatives had been associated with the group.

As the Iraqi government now speaks of shuttering displacement camps where tens of thousands of these internal refugees have been sheltering since then and returning them to their villages, the prospect of retribution back home awaits.

“The Islamic State is gone, and we’re still living in their wreckage,” said Kadhim al-Khazaraji, a local Shiite Muslim sheikh as his gaze settled on a house that had collapsed like a half-melted candle. “If I see someone here who was with ISIS back then, I will kill them. They killed my family.”

This hostility represents one of the largest obstacles to the government’s plan, announced in fall, to move ahead with the camp closures as part of a program of “safe and voluntary return.” Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has made the shutting of the camps one of his marquee promises.

More than three years after the Islamic State was ousted from its territory in Iraq, at least 1 million mostly Sunni civilians remain displaced and communities they hail from remain divided, the psychological scars of war often as fresh as those still etched into the facades of Dujail. There is no ready answer for how to stitch society back together.

Humanitarian aid groups are warning that if the camps are closed, tens of thousands of people, most of them women and children, risk homelessness or violent reprisals from Shiite militiamen and even from their own tribes and kin over perceived affiliation with the Islamic State or simply because they share its Sunni Muslim faith.

These families have been ostracized and deprived of basic rights, and their young generation now risks growing up as an underclass susceptible to recruitment into a new wave of extremism.

“If these families felt able to go home by now, then they probably would have done,” said one humanitarian worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing the ability to work in the camps. “Kicking them out in the hope that they go home will be disastrous. There’s no plan, and there are no guarantees.”

'Where can we go?'

In the north of Iraq, news of the prime minister’s plans has sent ripples of fear through the displacement camps. Inside ramshackle tents on barren earth, families crowded around television sets showing footage of people like them being bused to an uncertain future. Few of those interviewed believed that they still had homes to go to.

Families from Salahuddin province, where Dujail is located, said they had received threats from former neighbors. Several said that relatives had already tried to go home but been arrested along the way because local authorities had failed to secure proper security clearances needed to pass checkpoints along the way.

“We’re outcasts now. Where do we go? Where can we go?” asked Ruthaa Oman, 50, from the Salahuddin city of Baiji, sitting outside her tent in the Khazir displacement camp.

“You need to understand: Our houses weren’t bulldozed by random strangers. The man in the bulldozer was my nephew. Even our families want us dead.”

In its battle for land and religious supremacy, the Islamic State killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and launched a genocide against the minority Yazidi group. The U.S.-backed fight to defeat the militants lasted three years and drove some 6 million people from their homes.

Most have returned, but at the start of fall, Iraq’s displacement camps still sheltered almost 250,000 people, according to aid groups. About 34,000 people have left the camps since officials accelerated their push to close those located in the area of Iraq directly under its federal government. More than 25,000 others are still in three remaining camps in that area of Iraq. The semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq to the north hosts another 182,000 people across 15 displacement camps, and their future is uncertain.

Many are undocumented and will struggle to access basic services if they leave. Some lost their identity papers during the war. Children who were born inside the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate do not exist in the eyes of the government.

Across the country, local authorities are taking different approaches to receiving the returnees. Salahuddin’s governor Ammar Jabr Khalil has told researchers he supports the return of displaced residents, but Shiite tribesmen and militias who fought the Sunni extremists are objecting, warning that the return of anyone tied to ISIS might lead to its regeneration.

“Of course we want to help the displaced. We know they aren’t all terrorists,” mused Sheikh Khazaraji in Dujail. “But at the same time, a lot of those families still have this ideology, and it’s an ideology that just wants to kill.”

Another villager added more darkly: “Those men, those women, they’re all the same. If they even try to come back here, you’ll see a massacre.”

Plight of the undocumented

In Khazir camp, 13 family members were sitting on red, threadbare cushions alongside Oman, all women and girls aside from one 17-year-old boy. They acknowledged that their male relatives, now dead or jailed, had joined or collaborated with the Islamic State during the group’s 2014 sweep through their villages.

“Why do people think we could control them?” Oman asked. “My son was young. They recruited him. Do you think his mother had a choice? Do you think his children had a choice?”

South of the city of Mosul, Jiddah camp’s fifth annex was once surrounded by other camps as far as the eye could see. On a recent day, they were reduced to a sprawl of trash flanked by chain-linked fences. Dogs roamed the perimeter searching for scraps of food the residents left behind.

Inside the remaining camps, there are still children everywhere. As temperatures plunged this month, many were playing barefoot on rocky ground. A 2-year-old collected plastic with his family in hopes of selling it. Another was lying alone in a dirty puddle.

“We cried when the others started leaving,” said Watha Nahal Khalifa, 55, a slight and frail woman from a village in Salahuddin just 10 miles from the camp. She said that camp authorities had suggested that her family of 11, most of them below the age of 5, might have to leave within weeks.

“If the area won’t accept us and the camp shuts down, then where else will we go?” she asked.

None of the children have birth certificates, she said. The men of the family had all been jailed for alleged ISIS membership or killed during fighting. After Iraqi security forces regained control of the area where they’d lived, the wife of one of Khalifa’s sons learned that, without government-approved documentation, their marriage was not recognized in the eyes of the law.

“A family in the village here tried to force her into marriage instead,” Khalifa said. “She couldn’t take it. She burned herself alive.”

War's legacy

Villagers around Dujail insisted in interviews that Iraq’s government should provide psychological rehabilitation for returning families that had either sympathized or been traumatized by ISIS or continue to have emotional scars from the fighting. But no such plans have been announced. The Iraqi government is mired in economic crisis, and humanitarian agencies also face a funding deficit.

Standing outside the remains of his house, Abbas al-Khazaraji, a Sunni villager in Dujail, said that he was now living with 30 relatives inside a squat cinder-block shack he had built nearby. His brother and nieces were killed during the fight to defend the area against the Islamic State, he said.

His two sons, Qasim and Haidar, have been missing since 2015, when mostly Shiite militias swept into the area to battle the ISIS militants back and caught up countless Sunni residents in a dragnet.

When asked who the perpetrators were, Abbas glanced up at Sheikh Khazaraji and then looked down again. “We don’t know,” Abbas said.

“Unknown groups,” the sheikh echoed quickly. The phrase is often used to refer to the Shiite militias, some of which sided with the tribal forces that fought the Islamic State and are still stationed nearby.

Did he think his sons were still alive? The elderly man started to cry.

“Only God knows that,” he said. “The Islamic State ruined us. I’d kill anyone who returned with my bare hands, I swear.”

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