In Iraq, residents of the Islamic State al-Hol detention camp return home

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A washed veil dries in front of a tent in Jeddah camp, Qayyarah, Iraq.  (Younes Mohammad for the Washington Post)
A washed veil dries in front of a tent in Jeddah camp, Qayyarah, Iraq. (Younes Mohammad for the Washington Post)
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QAYYARAH, Iraq — The midday summer sun in Iraq rose as women huddled in the shade of their tents and reflected on how far they had come. The distance from Iraq to the al-Hol detention camp in Syria was not far, only a few kilometers, but the return journey had taken years.

The situation in the Syrian camp was hellish: frequent killings in the night caused terror in the dark. Years after the official defeat of the Islamic State, its supporters had turned the camp into a new theater of violence and control.

The return to their homes in Iraq thanks to this new camp, which promises to be declared a rehabilitation center, prompted Hadeer Khalid, 34, to shed tears of relief. “Being back in our country means everything,” she said, as her children laughed mischievously in the corner. “The situation for them was so bad there,” she said, glancing at the little ones. “We couldn’t breathe.”

Al-Hol camp remains one of the region’s most intractable problems – effectively an open-air prison housing tens of thousands of women and children from around the world, many of whom have family ties to the Islamist militants and few with home governments willing to accept them in return.

Syrian detention camp rocked by dozens of killings blamed on Islamic State women

In Iraq, the rise and fall of the Islamic State has left deep scars and memories of the bloodshed are fresh. The question on former militant territories is how, or even if, communities that have been torn apart can be mended — and if they will accept their former neighbors back from the camp.

Unlike most countries, Iraq is actually trying to bring its people home. Diplomats from Western countries who have refused to take back their citizens have described el-Hol as a festering sore on the global conscience. “Governments have tried to wash their hands of these people,” said an official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue in their home capital.

Since May 2021, nearly 2,500 Iraqis have been repatriated from al-Hol, which is home to around 30,000 Iraqis among its 55,000 residents. More returns are expected to follow, officials said.

Although Iraq’s remaining camps for the internally displaced have often become dilapidated from lack of funding and neglect – the government closed most of them last year – the facility housing al-Hol returnees is orderly and well managed. In some cases, locals painted bright murals outside their tents. There are psychologists who give sessions to those who show signs of trauma.

When Washington Post reporters visited the Jeddah camp, nearly all of the returnees interviewed said they had been in al-Hol since 2017, meaning they fled the Islamic State ‘caliphate’ several years before its fighters took up positions in the Syrian border hamlet of Baghouz.

Women often say they had little control over family decisions. In some cases, a husband or father had joined the group as a fighter. In other cases, male relatives had been ordered to continue in municipal jobs.

Psychologists who have visited the Iraqi camp say the signs of trauma are most acute in children. They can be anxious and withdrawn. Involuntary urination due to stress or fear is not uncommon. Small noises can startle them. Some have had suicidal thoughts.

In the Syrian camp for women and children who left the Islamic State caliphate, a struggle even to register names

Residents said they mainly kept their children inside their tents in al-Hol, fearing violence and indoctrination outside, and so sons and daughters are only now learning to play outdoors. air. “It took them a while to feel capable of doing this,” said Alia Ibrahim, 65, of Tal Afar, a predominantly Shia Turkmen town that Islamic State forces controlled for three years.

Her 3-year-old granddaughter, Maria, was sleeping on the floor of the tent, next to a doll with her arms torn off. Although her father, Abdullah, who also spent years in al-Hol, wanted to bring his baby girl home to Tal Afar, he was suspicious. “It’s not an easy idea,” he said. “We know people are going to judge us.”

If getting people across the border is one challenge, getting them home is another.

In ministries, high-ceilinged conference rooms and town halls, Iraqi officials are trying to figure out how to proceed.

In the city of Erbil recently, Saeed Jayashi, an adviser to one of Iraq’s national security organs, looked around a table at notables from neighboring Nineveh province who had gathered at a busy hotel. to hear what he had to say before the scheduled date. return of several hundred people to their hometown.

He took a deep breath and started.

“Every Iraqi, whether good or bad, we are responsible for that,” he told the group. “Please be honest with me today. Anything about you, I’m all ears.

Many agreed that children should not be punished for their parents’ crimes. But most of their questions were still about the security screening process. Attendees had watched grim videos from al-Hol showing women and children attacking media crews and chanting defiantly in favor of the Islamic State.

“We have a problem – these people still believe in ideology,” said one man. Another nodded. “We don’t want to bring people back from ISIS,” he told the room.

Iraqi authorities say the slow repatriation is partly attributable to the lengthy selection process. Individual returnees are vetted by several security agencies for their involvement in alleged crimes, although rights groups point out that the decision-making criteria are not transparent.

As the conversation repeatedly returned to how the Iraqi authorities could really know what was on the minds of the returnees, Jayashi answered the questions one by one.

“We have to be clear here,” he said. “We are not bringing back people from IS, we are bringing back innocent people. We need to separate these terms.

More than 80% of the millions of Iraqi civilians displaced by the war against the Islamic State have returned home. But for those whose families joined the group, acceptance varied. Although there are few reports of violent reprisals against returning families, many describe life of misery and ostracism. The mothers do not like their children to play with the returnees. Neighbors who once shared meals are now keeping their doors closed.

The United States built a hospital for Iraqi children with cancer. Corruption has ravaged it.

In Mosul’s Old City, whose skyline is still jagged after US airstrikes pulverized the neighborhood in the militants’ latest battle, most residents said they found it hard to believe anyone al-Hol may one day return. “Do you think they would come back here?” Ghassan Abdul Ghani, 56, a trader, asked in disbelief.

The militant group called Mosul its capital, and it ruled with an iron fist for three years. With the traumas of that period still etched into homes and bodies, residents of the Old City said they would struggle to live alongside al-Hol returnees.

“I mean, it’s impossible. No one would accept it,” Abdul Ghani said.

Iraqi special forces take the lead in hunting down ragtag bands of Islamic State fighters

Forty miles south in the town of Qayyarah, where several families are due to return in the coming months, residents were divided over who should be allowed to return home. Most agreed that women and children should be treated as “guilt-free”, but the idea of ​​returnees living among them made many worried.

In his side-street pharmacy, Jamal Jihad, 42, resigned himself to it, even if he didn’t like it too much. “At the end of the day, it’s the officials who are going to decide this, not us,” he said as he bustled around the pharmacy he had rebuilt after the activists left.

“People here have suffered a lot,” he said. “Whatever happens now, we’ll just have to accept it.”

Nearby, Fares Ahmed, 47, said he couldn’t even imagine families returning. He paused for a second, and his forehead creased sharply, as if a jolt of pain had passed through him. “They killed seven of my brothers when they were controlling this place,” he said quietly. “I retrieved their bodies from the morgue.”

Surely no one in this small town would allow anyone connected to the group to return, he said, right?


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