Fatima Musa spends long hours near the gate of al-Salamiyah displaced persons camp, southeast of Mosul, hoping that someone will inform her of the possibility of her return with her grandchildren to the Shura sub-district, south of Mosul, from which they were expelled, because her husband and three children belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “ISIS” during its rule of the region between 2014-2017.
Fatima, who is over 60, has nothing to convince people outside the camp walls that her 27 grandchildren do not pose a threat and that it is unfair to hold them responsible for what their parents and grandparents have done.
She says, “I have disowned my husband and children, and I can commit to anything they want from me in exchange for allowing us to leave this prison and return to our home,”, pointing to the camp’s fence, which is topped with barbed wire, and has three fortified gates preventing anyone from entering or leaving without security approvals.
Fatima, burdened with the pain of her orphaned grandchildren, and the loss of her husband and children, said while watching her young grandchildren playing, “What is the fault of these young children to grow up in this prison. Isn’t that injustice?”.
She adds, “Don’t they think of these children’s reaction when they grow up deprived of everything. Aren’t they afraid of their anger?”
Fatima’s husband, Ibrahim Ahmed al-Jubouri, was an ISIS fighter, who was killed in an air strike in early 2017 during the Nineveh liberation war, according to what she was told, but she is unaware of where he was killed or buried. As for her three sons, she does not know about the oldest, Khaled except that he followed the fate of his father during the battles to liberate Al-Farouq Street on the right side of Mosul in the spring of 2017. Her second son Walid is missing, and she has not heard anything about him for years, while the younger son Mustafa, is imprisoned by the Iraqi forces.
On December 24, 2019, and in line with the established legal procedures, an arrest warrant letter was issued by the legal authorities, against her husband and children, according to Article 4/1, for their affiliation with ISIS.
That letter represents a legal document according to which any of them would be arrested if they appear. “Although they were killed and we had new news from them, and although I legally repudiated them; this does not intercede for us to return home,” Fatima says with anger.
15,000 Families are waiting for Reconciliation
Unlike Fatima, others, despite their small numbers compared to the thousands who are unable to return, have received forgiveness from the residents of the areas from which they were displaced with their children, such as (Umm Muhammad) who refused to mention her real name.
Her husband, who surrendered himself to the security authorities, is serving a 15-year prison sentence, in al-Hoot prison in Dhi Qar Governorate, on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization.
She says that she returned to the Shura sub-district, where she was welcomed by her family and neighbors. She wants to continue with her life and not stop too much at the behavior of some residents, who she said are constantly trying to show their hatred for her and her children because of her husband. She continued, “What he did was outside his control, I know that well … He got involved with ISIS like many others, in a moment of weakness and despair.”
Major Ahmed, from the Tribal Crowd, south of Mosul, says, that “Umm Muhammad’s husband does not carry a radical ideology. His joining of ISIS lasted only for one month and it was due to financial need and to protect his children from the hunger that afflicted all people at the time”.
He justifies the neighbors’ permission for the return of Umm Muhammad’s family, unlike other families, by saying: “Abu Mohammad did not carry a weapon against anyone, that is why his family was allowed to return to their home.”
According to official Iraqi statistics, 14,767 families, of which one or more family members belonged to ISIS, in 4 governorates; Nineveh, Anbar, Salah al-Din and Diyala, were displaced to other areas or detained in special camps, following the collapse of ISIS and the liberation of these provinces from ISIS control in mid-2017.
In January 2017, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) signed a 5-year partnership with the Iraqi government’s National Reconciliation Implementation and Follow-up Committee to launch a $ 50 million project to support Integrated Reconciliation in the country.
In the implementation phase of this program, which is described by many families of ISIS fighters, as complex and slow, and which faces many difficulties in light of the presence of those who reject it; coordination has been made with 4000 ISIS families to secure their voluntary return to their areas in the governorates of Nineveh and Anbar during the year 2020, and more families will follow during the next two years.
According to a statement by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), a Code of Honor was signed, on October 14, 2020, in Al-Mahlabiyah subdistrict, west of Mosul, affirming the return of 1,100 ISIS families to the district and surrounding villages, from which they had fled.
Displaced Families conditions in the Camps
Nineveh governorate has 4 camps housing members of ISIS families. These camps are (Al-Jadaa’ 1, Al-Jadaa’ 5, Hammam al-Alil, Mount Sinjar, and Al-Salamiyah camp), all of which are managed by international organizations, in joint coordination with the Iraqi Ministry of Immigration.
Khaled Abdel Karim Al-Obeidi, Director of Immigration and Displacement in Nineveh, says that the number of displaced families in the camps is 12,000, equivalent to 59,000 displaced persons.
They all suffer from a lack of health and educational services, and they live in a state of constant waiting and anticipation for fear of being forcibly deported from these camps, in which many cannot find refuge elsewhere because of the war that has destroyed their homes and properties.
Al-Obeidi explains that the schools opened by international organizations inside the camps suffer from teaching staff shortage, as is the case in the rest of Nineveh Governorate, and that there is nothing his department can do about this, because its tasks are limited to providing relief aid and distributing fuel for heating in the winter.
As for the role of humanitarian organizations working in the camps to rehabilitate families, especially those belonging to ISIS members, Ahmed Subhi Karagholi, representative of “Bridge” Relief and Development in Iraq, says that his organization has implemented programs inside the camps, including those related to psychological treatment for children, “but there is a great shortage. The basic problem is the lack of rehabilitation programs for children in particular and families in general”.
Karagholi proposes the cooperation of several organizations in a joint project supported by the Iraqi government and the United Nations to rehabilitate children and integrate them into society. He stresses that “the displaced families, after three years of living in the camps, still experience unknown fate, and they do not know what awaits them in the future.”
Karagholi indicated that the UN program, which is popularly called “the ISIS Families’ Return”, is part of the tasks of the national reconciliation committees. There are areas that welcomed the return of ISIS families, such as Bashiqa and al-Mahlabiyya, east and west of Mosul, other areas refused to do so, except in very few cases, such as the Shurah and Qayyarah sub-districts, south of Mosul.
The reason for the refusal, according to security officials, is that the areas south of Mosul had the largest number of members of the Iraqi army and police and was constantly exposed to ISIS attacks, which caused hundreds of deaths.
Acquittal is not enough
In an attempt to address the conditions of thousands of displaced families whose children belonged to ISIS without ideological belief and only to support themselves, the government, through the judiciary, has adopted the concept of “Acquittal”, which are measures to check the conditions of all family members whose children belonged to ISIS, before allowing them to return to their areas.
This “Acquittal” concept, on which the reconciliation committees in the United Nations Development Project was based, faced tribal rejection in various parts of Nineveh, which are mostly tribal and usually adopt the idea of revenge.
Sheikh Maysar al-Hasoud al-Dulaimi, one of the sheikhs of Nineveh Governorate, sets conditions for the return ISIS families’ members to the areas where his tribe is concentrated in the south of Nineveh. “The families’ return does not take place except after paying the blood money (which the tribes are currently working on setting a minimum to) to the tribes’ families whose sons were killed by ISIS. Once this is done, the returnees are forced to undergo a de-radicalization and rehabilitation program and to submit evidence that they have obtained a certificate from an organization specialized in this field confirming that their extremist ideology has disappeared.
A Judge in a Court specialized in Terrorism cases, who preferred not to be named, says that the Acquittal is not a legitimate law, as it has no basis in the Iraqi laws in force, “but rather a practice adopted by the Judiciary in dealing with families whose sons joined ISIS.”
He continues: “These families, after completing the procedures of Acquittal, have the right to return to their homes, but there are areas in which the tribal Sheikh, the Mukhtar, or the Popular Mobilization Forces official forbids them from returning. Such behavior is individual, but it affects communal peace, because preventing these families from returning will make their children look at society with hatred, as they are also victims of wrong policies”.
The Judge warns against continuing to isolate these families, noting that “as time passes, they will bear a growing grudge towards society, which may push them to think of taking revenge in the future, which means security deterioration, and continuation of the violence cycle to another generation.”
Abu Yahya al-Hatim, representative of the southern Mosul tribes in the Popular Mobilization Authority, agrees with the proposal of the Judge, and he affirms that keeping these families in the camps is destructive, and may have grave consequences in the future, which will be difficult to confront.
Al-Hatim calls on the Iraqi government to play its role and coordinate with Sheikhs, Tribal leaders and Mayors of areas that prevent the return of ISIS families, in order to reach real legal guarantees for their safety and the safety and security of the region as a whole.
“There is a big difference between children who grow up in a tolerant society that considers them part of it, and those who grow up trapped in camps and constantly thinking about taking revenge against those who did that to them,” he says.
17,000 Children in the Camps
Intelligence sources we have communicated with stated that the number of ISIS members’ children in the camps is 17,364, in addition to the presence of children of unknown parentage, numbering 743 children.
Hazem Hussam Al-Zubaidi , a Sociology professor, warns of the dangers of keeping these families in the camps, saying, “They were part of the society and now they are rejected. This means a gap that affects social cohesion, especially since we are talking about tens of thousands of people, not a few hundreds.”
He refers to the emerging of social trends in what he called the post-ISIS period. One is the unwillingness to marry people from families that have been linked to ISIS. Also, there is no desire from the surrounding families to visit or interact with the returnees’ occasions of joy or sadness.
In August 2019, a Human Rights Watch report stated that local authorities in Nineveh had expelled more than 2,000 Iraqis from displaced persons camps. Some of them were forced to return to their homes despite fears about their safety there, due to the threats of their neighbors, who believed they had an ongoing relationship with ISIS. Some families were attacked with stun grenades thrown by unknown persons on their homes south of Nineveh.
In September 2019, Minister of Immigration and Displacement Nawfal Baha’ Mousa announced the closure of 4 camps for the displaced in Nineveh Governorate, namely: “Jadaa’ 2, Jadaa’ 3, al-Mudaraj, and Salamiyah 3,” and the return of the displaced persons to their hometowns, including ISIS families’ members.
We Do Not Want Them Among Us
Hussam Al-Dean, 47 years old, lists the names of his 12 relatives who have been killed by ISIS since 2006. He says, “Eight of them were employees of the local police in Nineveh, three in the army, and one in the Federal Police. They were performing their duty to protect the country and provide for their families”.
Hussam al-Dean, who lives in the Qayyarah sub-district of Mosul, is confident that the orphans of his relatives will not accept living side by side with the families of those who killed their fathers, and he confirms that many of them are ready to take revenge against anyone they find linked to ISIS.
Ghania Hameed, from the Shura district, south of Mosul, lost her son, Captain Saad, who was killed by ISIS in an armed attack in Mosul in May 2013. She refuses any form of reconciliation with the relatives of ISIS members. She said, “Those who demand the return of ISIS wives and children to our region have not experienced the pain of losing loved ones and do not know what it means for a child to be martyred when he is young.”
She demanded the Iraqi government to pursue ISIS fugitives and to impose the most severe penalties against them and to compensate the families of their victims instead of honoring their families by returning them to their homes, as if nothing had happened.
In Hammam Al-Alil sub-district, south of Mosul, farmer Ghassan Abdul Ghani, 57, does not rule out the possibility that ISIS uses the families of its members as hideouts for its fighters in the future, which means a deterioration of security after a period of stability.
He suggested that these families be resettled in other distant areas and that strict control be imposed on their movements until it is assured that they no longer pose a threat to anyone. He said, “There is rarely a family in the areas south of Mosul that has not lost one or many of its members at the hands of ISIS terrorists, so we do not want their families among us. They will always remind us of them, and this is what we cannot tolerate. The Iraqi government must understand that well.”
The Terrorist Ideology Still Exists
Any visitor to the displacement camps that have ISIS families’ members can hear women and children’s vocabulary, such as “the Islamic State, the Caliph, the soldiers of the Caliphate, Jihad, the Invasion” ; and other words and phrases that indicate loyalty to ISIS.
The reason for this, as civil activist Jamal Abdullah believes, is the desire of these families to show their discontent with the way they are being treated and the harsh living conditions they are facing. He believes that many of these families are still really holding on to what they call the Islamic State Caliphate. Also circulated, are other expressions that ISIS used in its media in the areas it controlled. This in itself is sufficient reason, Jamal believes, for some areas in Nineveh to refuse ISIS families’ return.
Jamal warns that the child, who was 5 years old in 2017 when his family fled to the camp, is 8 years old now, and what he daily hears from his furious mother or sister at the world outside the camp, may turn into a faith that may translate into acts of revenge violence in future years.
Despite the government’s assurances to address the file in a manner that achieves justice and security, rebuilding the social fabric, and its work to close the camps and return the displaced; the facts on the ground, as well as statements of dozens of officials, families and victims, reveal that the government still lacks an integrated strategy with social, economic, educational, cultural and legal dimensions to address the file, after 6 years of ISIS control on about a third of the country.
Dr. Ihsan Al-Shammari, head of the Center for Political Thought, believes that the former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is the one responsible for this shortfall, because he ignored the national reconciliation committees formed by his predecessor Haider al-Abadi in cooperation with the United Nations mission.
Al-Shammari points out that these committees considered all the problems and were closer to reality than others. They held lengthy meetings on this subject, and a strategy was developed in cooperation with clerics and governments to reintegrate these families into Iraqi society again.
“If the Abd al-Mahdi government had proceeded with implementing the societal reconciliation program, we would have a different situation today, and we would have been able to resolve many of the tribal issues which still pose a challenge for the return of thousands of families. It is a very disturbing file and leaving it unsolved poses a serious threat to the country’s security ” he concluded.
The report was completed with support from the NIRIJ Network for Investigative Journalism.