Nawzat Shamdeen – Iraqi journalist – translated by Walaa Rayya
09.01At 4 am every day, dozens of young men and children gather at a garbage collection center near the Al-Obour district in western Mosul, the center of Nineveh Province (405 km north of Baghdad), waiting for garbage trucks coming from different areas on the right side of the city to dump their loads there. Then, they begin to dig through the garbage, searching for anything that can be sold, eaten, or used as firewood for heating and cooking.
“We are forgotten,” says Ashraf Hamadi (17 years old) as he shakes out an empty 50-kilogram bag of rice, making sure there are no holes in it in preparation for his first excavating round on Thursday, December 22, 2022.”
He lifted the thick veil from his face slightly and then said, pointing to his jumping companions, “Most of them are displaced from neglected areas in western Nineveh, such as Tel Abta, Al-Ba’aj, Sinjar, and Al-Hadar, because of the sand that buried their villages and lands due to drought and desertification that killed their livestock, while other are displaced like me from camps.”
Then the man uncovered his youthful face completely to confirm his presence: “They expelled us from the Hassan Shami camp and refused to let us return to our village in Sinjar, so we had no choice but to come here,” he said, extending his arm towards a group of nearby incomplete houses, some of which were made of metal sheets, forming what is known as Al-Obour slums.
After pulling his veil back, the boy adds: “We lived for a few months in our tents, but the landowner evicted us because he wanted to divide his land into residential plots. At least three families rented a small house in the slums, which is better than living in tents in any case.”
Ashraf took his place among a group of his peers as the lights of an approaching garbage truck appeared in the distance. He approached us again and said, “Most of us don’t have official documents, we don’t go to school, we don’t have housing, electricity, water, or supplies…” The heads of those around him nodded in agreement with each word he said. Then they all quickly responded to a warning signal from the garbage truck and rushed to the spot where it had stopped.
Ashraf and his companions move from one pile of garbage to another until the afternoon, then they sort their daily loot: containers of food, cans of soda, electrical wires, pieces of iron, and plastic. Later, they sell them at a low price to owners of small trucks who collect their finds every evening. Some do not find anything worth selling, so they wait for what the garbage trucks will offer them the next day.
Years of armed group activity and neglect, followed by desertification in the western and southwestern areas of Nineveh, have forced thousands of families to flee in search of water and job opportunities in Mosul city. As a result, informal residential neighborhoods have emerged on the outskirts of the city’s original design. Hundreds of families who were living in displacement camps closed by the Ministry of Migration and Displacement after 2017 joined these neighborhoods.
Some of those families are destitute and cannot afford to pay high rent fees in other areas, while the other families of members of the “ISIS” organization are accused of being so. The areas from which they were displaced refused to receive them again, so their only refuge was in informal settlements, such as those in the Al-Obour area. Many of their children do not have official documents because their fathers were members of the organization or because their marriages were outside the jurisdiction of the personal status court.
The informal housing in Al-Obour and other areas has significantly hindered the expansion plans of Mosul city. The director of the municipality, Engineer Abdul Sattar Al-Habbu, mentioned that there are 58,000 housing units built informally that need to be rectified, which involves demolition and large substantial compensation.
This investigation sheds light on the residents of these informal settlements that include three adjacent neighborhoods (Al-Obour 1, Al-Obour 2, Al-Obour 3) and the problems they face due to their presence in a polluted environment that lacks health and educational services, in addition to the scarcity of job opportunities, as well as the dangers of their isolation and exclusion from society, whether due to the presence of families of “ISIS” members or due to extreme poverty under state neglect.
Between the state and the tribes
Civil activist Satar Oubaid, a young man in his thirties who lives in the Al-Obour neighborhood, constantly guides workers in civil society organizations to the most vulnerable residents. He draws a map of the area, saying: ” to the west of Mosul, there is a vast pile of iron that stretches to the Jablah area.” He points out that its presence outside the borders of the Mosul municipality led to unregulated construction in it, and the majority of residents are rural people who came from districts, areas, and villages belonging to Nineveh Governorate.
Despite the limited availability of job opportunities, Oubaid sees that the residents of Al-Obour, estimated at around 40,000 people, favor it over their original areas, where opportunities are completely non-existent. He notes, “Many of them used to be farmers and livestock owners, but they lost their means of livelihood due to the drying up of wells and poor rains… Their return has become impossible, as some of the villages have now been buried by sand.”
He falls silent for a moment and then says, “In short, the families residing in the area generally do not have jobs, nor do they have any security problems, meaning they are not affiliated with the Islamic State organization.”
He explains, “Families that have had a member affiliated with ISIS are considered by security authorities to be part of the organization. From a tribal standpoint, they are targets for tribes seeking revenge against ISIS for killing some of their members. As a result, it is almost impossible for these families to return to their old areas, and they have found refuge only in the Al-Obour area after being emptied from the camps that housed them.”
Many residents of the Al-Obour area are driven by this reality to scavenge landfilling sites to find something to sell or even eat. Only a small number of people have managed to find work in tile, flour, or potato storage factories, as an activist in relief organizations confirms.
These job opportunities provide wages to men that do not exceed 70,000 dinars per week ($47), whereas women are only compensated with a maximum of 40,000 dinars ($27) per week.
According to Nawfal Sulaiman, the Director of Statistics in Nineveh province, the province ranks first in Iraq in terms of the unemployment rate, which he stated to be at 32 percent, while the poverty rate reaches 40 percent. He also stated that his department has submitted a request to include 300,000 families in social welfare, and he expects 80,000 families to receive support in the 2023 budget.
According to his statement, Ninawa province, which has a population of over four million people, experienced a displacement of more than two million individuals based on international estimates. The displacement began in June 2014 when the region was seized by ISIS.
Prohibited from work
Another reason behind the scarcity of job opportunities for residents of the Al-Obour area is the rumors circulating about the presence of families affiliated with ISIS in the region, according to a local activist, who preferred to remain anonymous. He stated that due to the community’s backlash in Mosul and Nineveh against ISIS for what it committed against them during its control of the province between 2014-2017, employers are hesitant to hire these individuals due to their potential affiliations with IS and fear of any possible connections they may have.
The activist, who works for an international organization providing relief aid, adds another reason for the unemployment of the residents of the Al-Obour area, which is the lack of official documents for some of them. “As a result, they are unable to work on many private sector projects and official service departments, and cannot leave the area for fear of being arrested. Therefore, they have nothing but piles of garbage to dig through.”
According to a source in the appellate courts of Nineveh Federal Region, some people there do not possess official papers and documents because most of Al-Obour’s residents come from remote rural areas, where “Al-mullah contract” marriage is common which is a type of marriage where a religious man performs the contract, and births are attended by midwives without being registered with the health institution’s birth records. Many of them are not registered in schools until their parentage is proven in personal status court.
He mentioned that the other group consists of the children of “ISIS” members who were either not initially registered in official records in case they were foreigners or their births were not documented in case they were locals.
Siraj Mustafa, a wholesale vegetable merchant in the Maash Market area of western Mosul, says that he first asks for the ID card of any worker who applies to work for him, then he asks for a guarantor to verify that the applicant’s family has no association with ISIS. “If it turns out that the worker is from the Al-Obour area, they are not allowed to work at all, regardless of any guarantees provided”.
Mustafa defends his precautionary measures by saying, “I am not willing to subject myself to legal accountability or be looked at with suspicion by any security agency. Also, ISIS terrorists killed my brother, as well as several of my relatives and friends, and I will not forgive them or anyone associated with them for the rest of my life.”
Even charitable organizations and individuals face difficulties in the Al-Obour area, as A.A.R., a 58-year-old man who collects Zakat contributions and donations from benefactors to distribute them to the needy, confirms. He avoids directing his activities towards the Al-Obour area to avoid being held accountable by security agencies.
He explains: “some families have the necessary documents, such as death certificates or security clearance documents, while others do not. Additionally, some families have official documents for their members, and others do not. So why should I bring problems upon myself and the generous benefactors and donors? In summary, despite my knowledge of the needs of many and their innocence, I fear getting into trouble.”
Fatima Hazem Al-Mane’, the head of the Gnist organization, an Iraqi living in Norway, began working in 2019 on the right side of the city to enable several families to become self-reliant through small projects. Since early November 2022, she has been trying to transfer her successful experiences to the Al-Obour area.
Al-Mane’ recalls that some residents of that area settled there many years ago due to the cheap prices of small, illegal houses. These houses were initially constructed in violation of the law and are inhabited by people with limited income. Another group of residents includes either displaced persons due to climate change and water scarcity or members of families of ISIS elements who left the displacement camps and were not allowed to return to their original areas.
Al-Mane’ emphasizes that her organization’s main goal is to provide job opportunities for their targeted individuals by creating small projects that generate financial resources for them. She states, “Having a stable income through work is essential for securing basic needs.”
The aid provided by Al-Mana’s organization may work to keep the residents of the area away from violence in the future, and at the very least, offer a form of financial stability that could deter child labor and scavenging in garbage dumps and all the dangers that entail.
The director of the Norwegian organization U-Turn, Mohamed Saif Al-Mufti, visited the Al-Obour area in December 2022 with a relief team to assist some of its residents. He says he cannot describe the extent of the poor conditions there due to the swamps formed by sewage water between the randomly built simple houses, in addition to the extreme poverty suffered by its inhabitants.
He emphasizes that simply providing them with a food basket or a bag of medicine is not fruitful, and he adds: “It may meet a temporary need for a day or two, but then the situation will return to what it was.” Therefore, he prefers to select young people from the area to teach them specific professions, so that they can later manage small projects and train and employ others, “to achieve continuous benefit for an unlimited number of beneficiaries.”
Al-Mufti, who was born and raised in Mosul, criticizes volunteer organizations that exclude families whose sons were affiliated with “ISIS” and do not provide them with assistance, saying: “Although ISIS members killed thousands of innocent people and destroyed public and private property in Mosul, I do not allow myself to violate the rights of children or relatives of a man involved in terrorism, they are not guilty of the crimes committed by their relative.”
Regarding wives of “ISIS” members, Al-Mufti believes that the majority of them were forced to live with them: “The woman’s opinion in the decisions of men in our societies is ignored because she is simply marginalized. Seeking revenge against them and their children will only perpetuate the cycle of violence and potentially lead to a new generation of radicalization that could be even more dangerous than “ISIS”.”
The mufti believes that isolating the Al-Obour area from the surrounding community and turning it into ghettos (isolated residential areas where Jews were placed in Poland in 1941) make these areas vulnerable to exploitation by organized crime gangs, especially drug trafficking.
He also warns of the danger of preconceived judgments and collective punishment which ” forms complex circles of a sense of injustice and not belonging despair of justice, and a desire for revenge.”
He believes that correcting the ideas of supporters of extremist ideology will not succeed through rejection, isolation, or arms, but through the participation and cooperation of influential institutions in society such as religious, social, and cultural institutions. He adds: “The major problem is that society has unanimously decided to punish the families of the organization, including children.”
Collective punishment prevails without considering its consequences. In the spring of 2022, the U-turn and Gnist organizations agreed with the “Make it Beautiful” organization to provide clothes for children from the Al-Obour area for the occasion of Eid. A bus was supposed to take some of them to a clothing store inside the city of Mosul, but a checkpoint stopped them at the entrance to the city under the pretext of security concerns, even though their ages ranged from 10 to 15 years.
One activist says: “Even the simple dream of leaving their prison, for a short time, was not fulfilled. Some of them were children coming from families with no connection to ISIS”. She criticizes the authorities by saying: “Official state institutions are doing this to them instead of educating and rehabilitating them to become productive members of society.”
She warns against the continuation of the isolation and deprivation policy that is being pursued, and the failure to take fundamental measures to change the reality of the region: “They will grow up hating society and the state, and they will turn into time bombs that will inevitably explode later as terrorism or organized crime.”
Omar Al-Saarti, the director of the volunteer organization “Make it Better”, agrees with the cautionary opinions about the danger of these informal settlements becoming a breeding ground for a future generation that will resort to violence as a way of living. He says that Al-Obour and other similar areas such as the Al-Tank neighborhood and Al-Haramat suffer from marginalization and do not receive any attention from both the central or local governments. They also lack the support of local and international organizations, as a result of unwritten laws.
He adds firmly: “We know the reality of these areas well, they are marginalized with premeditation”.
Atle Mesøy, a Norwegian and senior advisor at U-Turn organization, affirms the risk involved in isolating a particular group of people with limited resources and no infrastructure in a specific geographic area. This situation causes them to constantly compare their living conditions with others, which can be detrimental.
Atle points out that anger can fuel radicalism: “In the case of legislating radicalism from the perspective of jihadist Salafism, this region will produce criminals who resort to terrorist methods, but they are not terrorists because their cause is not related to achieving political goals.”
Atle criticizes how both the Iraqi government and society treat severely all families residing in regions under the control of “ISIS” or those affiliated with it. He points out that there were families who were merely victims and had fled death during the battles, and were forced to flee to Syria and ended up in the infamous Al-Hol camp.
Atle urges Iraqi officials to acknowledge their inability to “rehabilitate this large segment, which has been exposed to extremist ideas,” and to follow the example of officials in Pakistan who sought international assistance and provided them security in the affected area.
Um Majida, who is in her sixties, resides in a tent located on the fringes of Al-Obour area 1. She lives with her four grandchildren, one of whom is under the age of two and suffers from cerebral palsy. According to her, the father of the children works in another city, and his wife abandoned them due to poverty and her inability to cope with her son’s illness and living in a tent. Thus, Um Majida took it upon herself to look after them.
According to her, her family resided in a village in the Al-Ba’aj district, located 144km west of Mosul and near the Syrian border. In early July 2017, when the operation to liberate Nineveh from ISIS began, she and several other families fled into Syrian territory, even though none of her family members had any affiliation with the organization, as per her account.
Following the liberation of Nineveh in mid-July 2017, Um Majda’s family returned to Iraq. However, their village refused to take them in, and the Iraqi authorities handed them over to the Jada’a camp. When the camp was later emptied, Um Majda and her grandchildren were left with no place to go except for a tent in the Al-Obour area. The tent was provided to them by a humanitarian organization.
Um Majida’s family belongings, which include blankets, clothes, and a plastic water container, occupy an area of no more than two meters inside the tent. A small lamp is wrapped around the pole of the tent which was donated along with electricity by a homeowner who lives a few meters away.
Um, Majida passionately says, “We have grown used to living in a tent, but what I find difficult to accept is the way we are treated as if we belong to ISIS and the fact that these children do not have any official papers.” She points to three of them who were gathered around her and then breaks down in tears.
Incubators of radical thought
However, the calls of Um Majida, the young boy Ashraf, their peers, and other residents of the Al-Obour area to end the discrimination and marginalization they suffer from, do not resonate with many of the people of Nineveh, as long as these individuals are accused of belonging to “ISIS”, even if it is due to their appearance or clothing.
- Hani, a doctor in his forties, accuses the Iraqi government of being responsible for the formation of “terrorist hotbeds that threaten social peace and security” by allowing families of ISIS members to return and settle in the city.
He says: “ISIS members have committed major crimes. There are more than 10,000 families in Nineveh waiting for their missing sons, whose remains are likely buried in mass graves in areas such as Al-Khasfa. Despite that, the government brings families of ISIS to live there.”
Al-Khasfa is a natural pit estimated to be over 100 meters deep, where ISIS threw the bodies of its victims during its control of Nineveh and buried them. The Iraqi state has not yet excavated it, despite many demands by the families of the missing.
- Hani is warning that these families could be a breeding ground for extremist ideology and could be harboring ISIS members who were not killed and have escaped from the security forces. He also emphasizes that the people of Mosul are not willing to suffer again because of the government’s mistakes.
He continues firmly: “Therefore, those families must be removed from the city, regardless of how their lives will be affected.”
Many individuals in Nineveh share the same mindset, particularly those who have suffered the loss of their loved ones or possessions. L.Y., who works for a European organization dedicated to assisting war-affected civilians and providing aid, explains that some individuals accuse his organization of supporting families associated with ISIS, which obstructs the progress of international aid projects. As a result, many organizations have left the area for the same reason.
According to the aid worker, his organization had planned to carry out a project for psychological rehabilitation in the village of Al-Abd, located south of Mosul, several months after the liberation of Ninawa. However, the employees working there received threats from unknown individuals who warned them against it, claiming that “the villagers were affiliated with ISIS.”
He wonders, “If there are still ISIS members present in that village, why aren’t the security forces dealing with them and holding accountable anyone who aided or supported the organization? Why are they free?”
Due to societal opposition, L.Y. denies any real rehabilitation for families affiliated with ISIS in Ninawa. Instead, they are isolated in camps, settling in remote and marginalized areas that lack the necessities of life. “Consequently, children grow up in impoverished and deprived conditions, regularly being reminded by their families that society is the reason for all of this”.
Drugs and child marriage
The civil activist, Satar Oubaid, highlights several phenomena he observed in the Al-Obour area, including the prevalence of child marriages among 14 and 15-year-olds girls due to the tribal nature of the local population. Additionally, many children are not enrolled in schools, as the only educational facility available in the area is a temporary trailer named “Al-Layla Al-Mubarakah.” The school is overcrowded, with 1100 students attending, which is several times its capacity.
Moreover, no girls’ school is available in the area for intermediate education. In light of poverty, lack of transportation, and muddy streets turning into pools due to rain and household sewage, most families prefer not to send their daughters to schools in other areas. “It means that once a girl finishes elementary school, she leaves the school and is prepared for marriage,” says Oubaid.
Additionally, he highlights the absence of medical facilities in the area, forcing locals to walk a distance of 5 kilometers to reach the nearest clinic located either in Nablus or Al-Tank neighborhood. According to him, visiting a private clinic or purchasing medicines from a pharmacy is a luxury that only a few patients can afford.
Jassem, 41 years old, a resident of the Al-Obour 2 area, says that he used to be a farmer in Tall Abtah, but he and his brothers, uncles, and their families were displaced due to desertification. Each pair of families has opted to rent a single house at a reasonable cost because of the lack of public services in the area. The house rent in the Al-Obour area ranges from 100 to 200 thousand dinars, equivalent to 69 and 138 US dollars, depending on the size of the property.
“In such a situation, what benefit will my daughters (9 and 11 years old) gain if they continue their studies? We are seven members in the family and we all sleep in one room,” he added while looking towards the dark family room inside the house, “As soon as my eldest daughter becomes capable of marriage, I will marry her immediately, instead of sending her to a school that is an hour’s walk away from home. Only Allah knows what she might encounter on the way… We hear and see disasters every day.”
With great determination, he insists that their tribe’s customs and traditions dictate that it is more appropriate for his daughter to move to her husband’s house. He falls silent for a moment, then shouts angrily: “Above our poverty and misery, there are those who accuse us of belonging to Daesh, although we are the ones most affected by them, as many of our relatives have been killed.”
The problems of the residents of Al-Obour and the informal settlements in the west and south of Mosul do not stop at social discrimination, security accusations, and the absence of services. Another danger threatens them, as revealed by a security source in Mosul who requested to remain anonymous: “Drugs are spreading, especially among the youth.”
The source does not rule out the possibility that the area could become a “favorable ground” for drug trafficking or an uncontrolled crossing point: “Poverty, discrimination, and a sense of injustice are all factors that create suitable environments for criminal gangs and active drug traffickers in Iraq.”
The security source adds: ” where do young men get the money to purchase drugs in an area where employment opportunities are limited? Is it not the result of theft or other criminal activities?”
Mohammed Al-Mufti adds that to his list of time bombs, as he describes it, calling on relevant state institutions to urgently develop an integrated plan to solve the accumulated problems in the Al-Obour area and other similar areas.
He flips through pictures on his mobile phone of young men gathered around piles of trash in the Al-Obour area, and says with distress, “Living on garbage seems to be the smallest problem these people are facing!”
Once the morning scavenging rounds, carried out by young boys and children in the garbage dump near Al-Obour to collect items for sale, are over, the scavenging rounds for food, carried out by women and girls, begin.
M.S., 28 years old, ensures that her headscarf fully covers her face, then she confirms that she is digging through the leftovers from restaurants and constantly finds something to eat. Her voice rises in protest: “During the time of ISIS’s control, we ate from garbage, and now, even with the state present, we still eat from garbage.”
M.S. did not complete her elementary education, and got married at the age of sixteen. She has three children, the youngest of whom is six years old and does not go to school. They wait for her in a small, unfinished house in the Al-Obour area. The house has two rooms occupied by three families, consisting of three brothers who are all unemployed.
Carrying a bag on her shoulder, she casts a scrutinizing gaze around her before pointing towards the direction of Mosul city. “We are humans just like those who live there. They should show us mercy, even their animals live better lives than we do here”.
The report was completed under the supervision of the “NIRIJ” for investigative journalism