SAMARRA: Accused of links with the Islamic State group, hundreds of Iraqi families have been evicted from displacement camps only to find their hometowns and tribes angrily refusing their return.
Left in limbo, they represent the complex legacy of the IS sweep across Iraq, which is keen to move on two years after ousting the jihadists but apparently unable to reconcile its traumatised communities.
In Samarra, a tribal area north of Baghdad, Sheikh Adnan al-Bazzi said there is “no way” IS-affiliated families would be allowed back to their areas of origin.
“The tribes, the families of those killed or wounded, those who lost their homes or were displaced, who have nothing — they can’t accept the relatives of IS,“ said Bazzi.
IS killed one of his brothers, an uncle and a cousin and Bazzi himself was wounded when the jihadists blew up his home, not once but twice.
And the threat isn’t over, he told AFP.
With IS sleeper cells still conducting hit-and-run attacks in the desert territory around Samarra, Bazzi said that resettling families with alleged IS ties could prove dangerous.
“There are terrorists still attacking military patrols, so how can you bring their families back?” he said, dressed in the traditional white robe and headdress of Iraq’s powerful clans.
Tribes wield considerable influence in Iraq, where they often disregard government institutions to resolve disputes based on close-knit traditions and religious customs.
When IS rampaged across Iraq in 2014, the family clans that make up the tribes had to choose sides: some backing the jihadists while others took up arms alongside government forces to fight them.
The war against the jihadists forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes and move into displacement camps, including in the northern Nineveh province where IS had its bastion.
Two years after Iraq declared IS defeated, the government is determined to shut down displacement camps across the country which are home to around 1.6 million Iraqis.
In August, authorities bussed more than 2,000 displaced from camps to their home provinces of Salaheddin, Anbar and Kirkuk, sparking concern from the United Nations and rights groups.
The UN said the returns could put families in danger and rights watchdogs said the transfers are at best poorly coordinated or forced, and at worst expose returnees to threats of violence in their home communities.
Earlier this month, three hand grenades were thrown into the Basateen camp in Salaheddin province, a day after the arrival of 150 displaced families from Nineveh.
The following day it was hit by two more grenades.
And on Sunday armed men wounded two soldiers guarding the camp, a security official said.
Protests have also erupted outside camps against the government’s bid to return displaced families to their homes, and in one case when families were transferred to their hometown of Haditha in Anbar it turned ugly.
“It was clear from the moment they arrived there that they were at risk of being killed,“ said Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Police then took them to a school about three kilometres (two miles) away from Haditha and there was a grenade attack on them there,“ she said.
Families stuck in ‘purgatory’
HRW has urged authorities to allow displaced Iraqis to make their own decisions on returning home and not to “collectively punish” alleged IS-linked families.
“This system has put these families in a purgatory that prevents them from returning home, imprisons them in camps, and forces them to endure dire conditions that portend bleak futures for their children,“ said Wille.
According to IS expert Hisham al-Hashemi, around 371,000 displaced are believed to have ties to the jihadist group and less than half will probably be unable to return home “due to local and tribal rejection”.
“No one can stop tribal vengeance. The state can’t post a cop at every family’s door to protect them,“ Hashemi said.
In some regions, however, women who have denounced IS-affiliated husbands have been able to reconcile with their tribes and return home.
But for some displaced, returning home is simply not an option no matter how hard they try to deny any links to IS.
Such is the case of Umm Haydar, 41, who fled her hometown of Ishaqi south of Samarra in 2015 with her children after IS jihadists abducted her husband.
“When we say we want to go back home, they tell us that we’re IS and that they don’t want us back,“ she told AFP.
Umm Haydar lives in an abandoned school and says she is running low on money to feed her four children.
“I can’t sign them up for school or obtain any official documents. Each time they tell me ‘you’re displaced.” — AFP