A life in limbo for the wives and children of ISIS fighters
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
The casualties of war aren't always the dead. In Iraq, they're also the abandoned, the rejected, the forgotten. More than four years after ISIS was forced from its territory in Iraq, there are still tens of thousands of Iraqis from around those former ISIS areas, languishing in displacement camps. They're mostly women and children, many from families who had men in ISIS, some who did not. Still, many are afraid to leave. They feel stuck because they're suspected of ties to the group.
NPR's Jason Beaubien visited one of those camps.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: As you drive to the gate of the Hassan Sham camp, you pass through what used to be an ISIS stronghold, a village that now is just an expanse of abandoned and blown-up cinderblock houses. Armed Kurdish security forces guard the front gate of the dusty, fenced camp. The residents here are supposed to be free to leave, but many say they're afraid to go anywhere else. Noora Majeed had been living in the Hassan Sham camp for five years with her four children. She says she can't return to her old neighborhood in Mosul and has nowhere else to go.
NOORA MAJEED: (Through interpreter) We're afraid to go back to there because they accuse - like, they tell us, like, you're wives of ISIS. They harass us. They come, they check.
BEAUBIEN: Her husband, she says, died fighting for ISIS. Now she and her kids are branded as ISIS by her former neighbors, by the government, she says. Even her own family refuses to have anything to do with her or her children.
MAJEED: (Through interpreter) If this camp closed, where shall we go? You know, like, nobody wants us. Nobody welcomes us. Nobody receives us. They don't like us. My family and the community - none of them.
BEAUBIEN: Nearly 6,000 people live here in white canvas tents provided by the U.N. This is one of two dozen camps in northern Iraq, housing nearly 200,000 people. Some of the residents here recently arrived from another massive camp in Syria that's seen deadly attacks by ISIS sleeper cells over the last two months. At the Hassan Sham camp, each person gets a stipend of $12 per month from the World Food Programme. But Majeed and her neighbors say this isn't nearly enough to live on. One of Majeed's sons digs up wild roots from the surrounding plains as a way to earn extra cash. The deputy manager of the camp, Haniya Baka Othman, says conditions in the camp are difficult and getting worse as funding for food, education and health care dries up.
HANIYA BAKA OTHMAN: Health - it's too, too, too bad. We have just one center for the health, and they will receive approximately, in weekly, 500 patients in the week.
BEAUBIEN: But the donor that was paying for the health clinic just decided to terminate its contract. The high school doesn't have money for teachers, so roughly 200 teenagers walk each day to another camp to study. The Iraqi government has made it clear it wants to shut down these camps. This camp was founded by UNHCR, and it's now administered by a local charity. It sits in an area adjacent to the part of Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Othman says the government is trying to discourage people from staying, even as it transfers additional ISIS families here. The Iraqi government has declared that anyone who arrived after November of 2020 isn't eligible for food stipends.
OTHMAN: So when they bring assistance for the residents, they would exclude those family comes after this date.
BEAUBIEN: Many Iraqis view the residents of these camps with suspicion. The violence that ISIS unleashed in 2014 is still fresh in most Iraqis' minds. The conflict drove millions of people from their homes and left thousands dead. And ISIS continues to launch sporadic attacks in Iraq and staged a brazen jailbreak across the border in Syria in January. Iraq's deputy minister of migration, Karim Hussein Ali Al-Nuri, however, says ISIS was defeated in Iraq five years ago. The camp residents don't pose a threat, and it's simply time for them to go home.
KARIM HUSSEIN ALI AL-NURI: (Through interpreter) They have no affiliation with ISIS. They have been checked by the security forces, and they have no problem.
BEAUBIEN: But residents of the Hassan Sham camp say the lasting stigma of ISIS and other problems prevent them from leaving the facility. Some of the women have warrants for their arrest, Othman says, and can't even leave for medical care. Roughly 40% of the residents, the administrator adds, don't have any identification. The rate is even higher among the children born in the territory that was controlled by ISIS. Without ID, those kids can't even attend the primary school inside the camp because it's an Iraqi government school. And without ID, residents can't pass the security checkpoints on the roads outside the settlement. Othman says a Swedish aid group tried to launch a campaign to get residents IDs a couple of years ago.
OTHMAN: But the Iraqi government not accept that because they are the family of the ISIS.
BEAUBIEN: Two sections of the camp house young men who were child soldiers with ISIS. They've served sentences in juvenile detention, some of them for committing terrorism, but could face additional federal charges if they attempt to go home. With nothing else to do, 23-year-old Jowhar Adel says they sleep late, scroll on their phones, play soccer in the afternoons. Adel has no idea if or when he'll be able to leave this camp.
JOWHAR ADEL: (Through interpreter) It's like a prison. We were in prison, and this is another - a different type of prison. The only freedom we have here is we just have phone calls, you know, like, and we call. You know, that's all.
BEAUBIEN: Asked who he blames for his predicament, he says the United States. The 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, he says, led to the humiliation of the Sunnis in Iraq and the rise of ISIS. Human Rights Watch denounces these camps as collective punishment against the families of ISIS. Keeping young people essentially indefinitely in conditions where many of them don't even have access to education is creating a ticking time bomb, according to the group. Adel, however, says he has no desire to rejoin ISIS.
ADEL: (Non-English language spoken).
BEAUBIEN: We want peace, he says. We don't want to interfere in anyone else's life, and we don't want anyone to interfere in ours. One of the worst things at the camp, he says, is the boredom. If he gets out, he wants to work - maybe do construction or as a mechanic.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, in northern Iraq.
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