A liberation, then suspicion
Soldiers hold Iraqi men after Islamic State flees village
BARTELLA, Iraq — As Iraqi forces traded fire this week with the Islamic State fighters who held his village hostage for the last 2 years, Taqayadin Hawas hunkered down with his seven children and prayed not to die.
Mortar shells nearly leveled the house as his children wailed. With snipers outside, the family couldn’t flee. He thought their homewould be their grave.
When the gunfire stopped Tuesday, the family emerged to find their house and much of their village of 75 homes destroyed. One elderly man had been killed by a mortar strike. Still, the 700 villagers were jubilant.
Free of the militant group’s stern Islamic strictures, men cut their beards, women removed their veils. Families prepared for reunions with family they had not seen in years.
But freedom brought new problems. The villagers found themselves treated with suspicion, held under guard, searched and questioned even before arriving at the residential camps for Iraqis displaced by the war — were they innocent civilians, or militants in disguise?
Telling the difference between the two is one of the biggest challenges faced by local authorities and international aid groups.
“We don’t want to see people looking for safety punished,” said Alex Milutinovic, International Red Cross country director in Iraq. “The screening process, that’s what it’s for: So that people who committed crimes will be punished. ... The rest should be provided assistance and support. The majority of (displaced people) are not terrorists.”
Frederic Cussigh, head of the United Nations refugee program in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil, said his organization arranged to fasttrack screening for women and children but that the rest must be screened carefully because Islamic State “could infiltrate with the civilians either to hide or perpetrate Iraqi families flee their homes Tuesday in the village of of Tob Zawa, where hundreds of people were quickly placed under guard and families were told they would be separated. some attacks later on.”
At a checkpoint near Bartella, about 15 miles east of Mosul, hundreds freed from the village of Tob Zawa were quickly placed under guard and families were told they would be separated. Women and small children were ushered ahead, men and older boys held back for a couple of hours as Kurdish soldiers questioned them and searched their cars, trucks and tractors, some hauling a mix of people, furniture, sheep and calves.
It was difficult to discern which villagers — if any — had supported Islamic State.
Anter Arafat, 64, said sol- diers questioned him about the group’s occupation; they wanted to know who had supported the militants. Arafat told them the fighters had all fled.
He and others spoke of being forced to pray five times a day, to grow beards and abide by strict rules that forbade television, cellphones and smoking. Those whomissed prayers lost their electricity. Women had to cover nearly every inch of their bodies, including their hands. Even men said they had to ensure their ankles werecovered. Theysaidtheir children had not seen doctors or attended school.
Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers guarding the convoy of evacuees were edgy at first. They warned those approaching the villagers that some might be armed with suicide vests.
Villager Abdel Hadi sat cutting his beard with scissors and a plastic mirror, hoping that would persuade officials at the camp that he was not allied with Islamic State. “I’m expecting an investigation. I don’t know what,” said Hadi, 33.
Also cutting his beard was Omar Madhar, 35, whose wife and four children had already been taken to a camp. As he trimmed, a friend who had driven 45 miles west