“This place is contaminated”
An hour’s drive outside Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the Hassan Sham IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp sits in the shadow of the village of the same name. The camp opened in 2016 after a successful offensive by the Kurdish Peshmerga military force and the Iraqi army routed Isis from its two-year occupation of the village, which was destroyed in the process. The road to the camp passes through the ghostly deserted ruins, gently rising through pancaked homes, silent mosques and burned-out shops, before descending towards the village edge where the grey tents of the camp spread out, baking in the 49-degree heat of the Kurdish summer. Beyond, arid fields spread to the horizon.
At the time of my visit, there are 5,763 Iraqi IDPs in the Hassan Sham camp. According to the Peshmerga force based here to keep the peace, half of the camp’s residents are associated with Isis, including members released after serving sentences in Kurdish jails and the wives and children of Isis fighters. The other half are victims of the caliphate’s brutal rule.
It is an uneasy coexistence. The gates are open, but nobody is leaving. “People are afraid of being out of this camp,” explains camp ambulance driver Haji Yunis Haji, 54. “Beyond, there is no assurance of life.” Life in the camp is harsh. There is not enough electricity, clean water or food. But as far as the international community is concerned, the crisis is over. Aid and humanitarian organisations have pulled back their emergency services. Iraqi IDPs are largely being ignored, effectively dismissed as a local issue or yesterday’s news. But they are now threatening to become a much bigger problem.
With the paring back of the work carried out by the international NGOs, only two small organisations are left to look after healthcare in Hassan Sham. Liver and kidney problems, blood pressure, diabetes, hypertension, skin conditions and dehydration are common. “There have been a lot of deaths here,” says Haji.
As conditions at the camp deteriorate, despair and anger are growing. Violent incidents – even among young boys – have become common, triggered by the smallest disagreements. Depression is ubiquitous, visibly affecting young children who, lethargic and unsmiling, drop off to sleep at any opportunity. “People can’t go back home. They can’t move,” says Haji. The camp is on a knife edge.
Saviha Yassim Ali, 60, cradles her granddaughter Ruhia in her lap. A pink fabric heart hangs on the concrete wall above a small mattress, a note of light in the dank, dark room. This has been home for two years, since the offensive against Isis reached the caliphate’s former stronghold of Mosul, and Saviha and her family took their opportunity to make a perilous escape.
“We have seen everything bad imaginable,” she says of the time under Isis. “I am praying they won’t come back.” Now, like many here, they are trapped, stranded without the crucial identification documents required to travel around Iraq or to access services, from education to health – and with little hope of getting them.
Ruhia’s parents, who are also at the camp, were married under Isis and her birth certificate was issued by Isis. Iraq, however, does not respect documents issued by Isis – nor, by law, will it issue a birth certificate to a child born out of wedlock. With no means to get the marriage certificate or a birth certificate for Ruhia, they are unable to leave. But even if they could get home, there is no home to go to. It was destroyed in the fighting. Nor is there any help here to rebuild their once happy lives.
Grateful as they were for the security when they arrived at the camp, two years later, with the facilities deteriorating and no end in sight, the strain of the circumstances is becoming unbearable. “This place is contaminated,” says Saviha with despair. “The only money we have we get by selling the rations and the stuff the NGOs give us.” There is also the problem of her neighbours. “Of course there are Isis families here,” she exclaims. “Next door, the woman was Isis. She is not a good person.”
Ruhia has fallen asleep. As she dozes under the heart, Saviha stands and pulls back the tarp they use as a door. Puddles gleam in the half light of the gloomy corridor. A small child’s cries echo dully. She pauses, taking in the scene. “Life was so much better before [Isis]” she says. “And even during Isis.”
Saviha’s ‘Isis neighbour’, Fatima Ahmed, says she became associated with the group through necessity. When Isis came to Mosul, her marriage had recently ended and, struggling to survive on her own, she was desperate to find a new husband who would accept her and her three children and look after all of them. She was grateful when Isis member Rabir Omar Khamir al Ameriki agreed. “The reality of Isis is that people suffered from the killing, torture and starvation,” she acknowledges. “But I accepted everything for the sake of the kids.”
Fatima and Rabir were arrested by the Peshmerga in the offensive to drive Isis from Mosul. Rabir is still in jail. Fatima, now 27, arrived in Hassan Sham in December 2017 after spending seven months imprisoned with her children for her association with Isis.
Like Saviha, Fatima has no identity documents – nor, with one of her children fathered by an Isis militant, any chance of getting them.
“People treat me badly as they know I am from Isis,” Fatima explains. “Some people want to kick me out of this place. If they had the power, they would.” She has not left the camp since arriving, and returning home is out of the question. “Inside Mosul, there is retaliation,” she explains. “If I go there, they will kill me.”
Fatima cradles her two-year-old daughter, Farilla, as her other three children crowd next to her in the single room they share in a concrete block. A TV – bought with a Ramadan donation from a charity – is playing cartoons, the sound muted.
Delicate and slight, with saucer-like brown eyes, Farilla stares, listlessly, emotionless. Like all of the children at the camp with Isis fathers, Farila is loathed and taunted, her mother explains, her eyes welling with tears as she strokes her daughter’s glossy black hair.
With no prospect of rebuilding her family’s life, no exit from the camp and no place in Iraq where her Isis-fathered child will be accepted, Fatima is desperate for something to change. “All the news talks about is that Isis will be back,” she says, with a mix of apprehension and hope.
Ahmed Zanoor, 54, [pictured above] has hands like shovels and the manner of a man who trusts no one. He is from Kharaij al Ashiq, a village in the countryside outside Mosul. Before Isis, he was a policeman. He guarded the oil fields and kept livestock.
It was a good living. With the money he earned, he built two big houses at a cost of 30 million dinars (£20,000), one for each wife, with a bedroom for each of his children. “We had a really good, happy life in the village,” he says with a sigh, as we shelter from the blistering heat under a makeshift awning. He now shares a small tent with both his wives and their six children, two of whom were born in the camp.
Ahmed’s previously happy existence was shattered by the arrival of Isis. “Life under Isis was hell,” he says. “It was a reign of terror.” He blames Isis for destroying the life he and his family had built, but he blames Iraq for allowing it to happen in the first place, saying that the country failed to put up a fight against Isis insurgents as they marched into Mosul in June 2014. “I don’t trust the Iraqi army,” he says angrily. “Iraqi officers sold Mosul to Isis.”
Ahmed can’t leave Hassan Sham. His houses were destroyed in airstrikes, his livestock stolen, his children have no identity documents – and it’s not safe: Isis fighters are still operating in the mountains near his village. Just two weeks before we speak, 17 people were beheaded by Isis in the nearby village of Badosh. As a police officer, he would be a marked man.
“Of course they can and will regroup. If the Isis people were ever allowed to, they would kill all of us”
The febrile atmosphere in Iraq combined with fears of the return of Isis mean that injustices are rife in the area. With no proof necessary to get someone arrested for being Isis, personal scores are being settled merely by accusation. Ahmed’s cousin was arrested at the nearby Erbil checkpoint where it is claimed that the authorities make little effort to accurately identify individuals. A first name associated with Sunni Islam can often be enough to land someone in jail for years, if not decades. “But I know him,” Ahmed says forcefully of his cousin. “I know he is innocent. Before, Iraq was equal in justice. But now, no one trusts anyone. Justice is gone.”
“At least Isis rules were for everyone,” he adds with bitterness.
In July 2019, Iraq’s National Security Council passed ‘Resolution 16’, ordering that people not from Nineveh – the province which includes Mosul and the Hassan Sham camp – must leave all camps for the displaced that lie within its boundaries. The directive affected 38,040 people, according to Human Rights Watch in their report in early September. The resolution also decreed that a database of people be created to detect those affiliated with Isis and that security be stepped up to control the movements of residents of displaced camps, regulating if they can leave or not.
By early September, 2,000 people said to be Isis-linked had been forcibly expelled from the Nineveh camps, forced into returning to their home towns, which mostly lie in ruins and where they are vulnerable to attacks by neighbours and Shia militias.
By mid-October, four camps in Nineveh province had been closed and the number of residents at Hassan Sham and its sister camp Khazir had grown to around 17,000. More people continue to arrive at Hassan Sham daily, yet it has received no additional resources to cope with the bigger population. This scenario of putting the displaced into one big camp had been long under consideration by Iraq, but it was deeply feared by Hassan Sham ambulance driver Haji Yunis Haji who noted that “most people” in the camp were already “related” to Isis. “The idea of big camps is not a good one,” he said. “The big camp will have big issues – and people will be less controlled. Of course, if you are alone, you can’t do anything. But if you are in a big camp, with Isis here and there, of course they can and will regroup. If the Isis people were ever allowed, they would kill all of us.”
Further destabilisation came on 6th October when US president Donald Trump announced a pull-back of American troops from the Kurdish area of northern Syria. “Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” read a statement from the White House. “United States forces, having defeated the Isis territorial ‘Caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area.”
On 9th October, the Turkish incursion, codenamed Operation Peace Spring, began with airstrikes on border towns. The operation moved swiftly: 150,000 people had been displaced, scores killed and more than 100 released Isis prisoners were estimated to be at large by 22nd October, when Turkey and Russia reached a deal to divide up northern Syria between them.
What happens next in Iraq, according to Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, depends on how the country responds to the potential return of 30,000-40,000 Iraqis – mostly women and children – who are currently in the camps of north-eastern Syria. Up to now they have preferred to stay in Syria, out of fear of what could happen to them if they return, but this could be about to change. “With the fighting in north-east Syria, some of these families are changing their position and are more keen to come back to Iraq,” says Wille. “Then the real question is going to be what the government does with them upon their return.”
Putting them in a mass detainment camp is an option with strong support in the Iraqi government. Wille thinks it would be a bad idea. “It would be fundamentally destabilising for Iraq’s future,” she says. “Mass interning people who have not been convicted of committing a crime, but are being treated with a broad-brush form of collective punishment is likely to foster more marginalisation and extremism.”
Wille says the only way forward is a major reconciliation programme. “The main thing is for the government to engage proactively with armed forces, local communities of origin and its own institutions to ensure that obstacles to return are removed,” she says. The chances of this happening are slim. “This is the reason why at the moment I’m not particularly optimistic about Iraq’s plans to ensure long-term peace and stability,” she says.
When Isis came to the countryside around Mosul in 2014, Alaa Hossein’s husband, Muhammed Issa, then 30, quickly joined the militant Sunni force, as did most of the young men from their village of Sharlat. “Everyone was encouraging each other to join. It was a point of pride,” she explains.
Muhammed was killed in 2015, leaving Alaa alone with four small children. When Isis was eventually ousted, the repercussions for Alaa were extreme. “Because of my husband, the Shia militia came and took away my two brothers, both teachers, and my father, who was a headmaster,” she says. Alaa fled with the children to Mosul, sheltering in anonymity from her Isis past. They lived in the bombed-out shell of a building until poverty drove her to the Hassan Sham camp.
“I can’t go back to my village ever again,” she says. Her family could pay money for her to return, she says, but neither they nor the village will accept the children, the eldest of whom is eight, because of their Isis father – not at any price or under any circumstances. “I have been cast out because of my children,” she says. “No one accepts me.” She cannot get an ID: Sharlat is on a list of villages whose residents Iraq is reportedly refusing to issue with documents, irrespective of their affiliation.
“Your destiny under the Shia militia is death but if we go to the Iraq side we will end up in jail”
There is a widespread feeling of hopelessness among the IDPs left to fester in Hassan Sham, as well as a strong sense of grievance. According to many, it was a similar atmosphere of resentment that lay behind the easy acceptance of Isis in large swathes of Iraq in the early stages of the so-called ‘caliphate’ in 2014.
“In the beginning we thought Isis had come to liberate us from the Iraq government,” former shepherd Mahmoud Faisal, 17, of Hawija says. “After six months we learned the truth and they showed their other side. We got trapped.” “Most of us automatically joined Isis,” agrees a friend of his. “We thought it was a Sunni revolution force.” Mahmoud was convicted in a Kurdish court of being an Isis member. He and many young men like him have served jail sentences in Kurdish prisons before being released and making their way to Hassan Sham.
I meet half a dozen of them in a tent at the camp. Thin foam mattresses are stacked in a corner. Small empty tins on the floor overflow with cigarette butts. None of the men believe they can leave this purgatory. Outside the camp, they face being targeted by Shia militias and, as Iraq doesn’t respect Kurdish justice, outside Kurdistan they are all still wanted men. “Your destiny under the Shia militia is death,” says Hassin Abad, 24, “but if we go to the Iraq side we will end up in jail. I would prefer to die than accept this life.”
Two years after Isis was deemed to have been routed from Iraq, camps like Hassan Sham have turned into cauldrons of despair and rage.
“The government is inflaming hatred here – they are creating another Isis,” warns convicted Isis member Muhammed Sami, 19. “If we stay, the hatred will grow. I tell you, Isis will be back.” Former police officer Ahmed Zanoor echoes the thought. “Do you see a future here?” he says. “I am sure Isis will regroup. I see only war in the future of this country.”
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