Iraq dis­places the already dis­placed

Decision to close camps puts many hun­dreds in peril

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Philip Issa

BZEIBIZ, Iraq — It was a cold and gusty day in De­cem­ber when the army came to the Bzeibiz camp and told fam­i­lies dis­placed by the war against the Is­lamic State group that it was time to go home.

The fight­ing was over, they said, and the camp west of Bagh­dad was go­ing to be closed.

Some of the fam­i­lies protested that they had no homes to re­turn to. The army said they would be sent to Amariyat al-Fal­lu­jah, a re­mote camp ringed by chain-link fences and barbed wire.

“They threat­ened us,” said Khalwa Hamid, 27. “They said, who­ever doesn’t leave, we’ll haul them out in our Humvees.”

In the next few days, close to 800 fam­i­lies filed out, ac­cord­ing to fam­ily in­ter­views and U.N. data.

A lit­tle over a year since the coun­try fought its last bat­tle against ISIS, but well be­fore it has got­ten a han­dle on re­con­struc­tion, Iraq is clos­ing its camps for the dis­placed in west­ern An­bar prov­ince and cast­ing vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies into a mael­strom of peril.

Many fam­i­lies can­not re­turn home, ac­cused by their tribes of col­lab­o­rat­ing with ISIS. Oth­ers worry there is no work, school­ing, or hous­ing to re­turn to. Strag­glers are be­ing sent to two tight­ly­con­trolled camps deep in the plains of An­bar, where mil­i­tary au­tho­riza­tion is re­quired to leave.

“We were dis­placed once be­cause of (ISIS). Do we have to go through this again be­cause of the gov­ern­ment?” said Hamid.

When mil­i­tants swept through north Iraq in 2014, they trig­gered a mi­gra­tion and dis­place­ment cri­sis un­prece­dented in Iraq’s his­tory. Mil­lions fled their homes in the face of the mil­i­tants’ rapid ad­vance;

oth­ers fled as Iraqi forces, backed by the U.S. and Iran, bat­tled back, ul­ti­mately re­claim­ing the last town in late 2017.

Some 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple out of Iraq’s pop­u­la­tion of 38 mil­lion are still wait­ing to re­turn to their com­mu­ni­ties.

Des­ti­tute, home­less, and un­pro­tected by the courts, dis­placed fam­i­lies have borne the brunt of the po­lit­i­cal and per­sonal score-set­tling un­der­way in post-war Iraq.

Since lib­er­a­tion, thou­sands of men have been swept up in ar­rests for al­leged af­fil­i­a­tion with ISIS — more than 19,000 in prison as of March 2018. Many have been pushed through cur­sory tri­als last­ing only a few min­utes that of­ten end in con­vic­tions and death sen­tences.

Be­tween June and De­cem­ber 2018, Iraqi se­cu­rity forces closed three of the An­bar’s five dis­placed per­sons camps — Bzeibiz, Kilo 18, and Khalidya — which to­gether shel­tered more than 12,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to U.N. fig­ures. At least 3,000 were pushed into the Amariyat al-Fal­lu­jah and Hab­baniyah Tourist City camps, already the largest in the prov­ince.

Maj. Gen. Mah­moud Kha­laf Al-Falahi, com­man­der of the armed forces in An­bar, said the army was do­ing its ut­most to re­turn fam­i­lies to their com­mu­ni­ties of ori­gin, while con­sol­i­dat­ing the re­main­ing camps to pro­vide bet­ter se­cu­rity and ser­vices.

“If these camps stay, then we are go­ing to raise an­other gen­er­a­tion of ISIS,” he said.

At Bzeibiz, fam­i­lies had just days to pack their be­long­ings. Sev­eral fam­i­lies said of­fi­cers col­lected per­sonal in­for­ma­tion and fin­ger­prints that, they were told, were for IDs.

“But three or four days later, an of­fi­cer came and said, ev­ery­one get out, be­cause you all gave your fin­ger­prints. We didn’t know about this pro­vi­sion. We signed for badges,” said Naima Abd, 37.

The camp had housed 4,896 peo­ple, or 831 fam­i­lies, ac­cord­ing to a Dec. 15 U.N. cen­sus. When The As­so­ci­ated Press vis­ited four days later, it was nearly de­serted. Empty tents sagged un­der the winds, and dis­carded fur­nish­ings lit­tered the dirt lanes. Hamid, who worked at a med­i­cal char­ity in Bzeibiz, said only 47 fam­i­lies had re­mained.

Hun­dreds were moved to much harsher cir­cum­stances in Amariyat al-Fal­lu­jah, nine miles west and host to more than 21,000 peo­ple.

Schools are un­der­staffed, and clin­ics are not equipped to pro­vide the spe­cial­ized care that many war vic­tims re­quire, such as treat­ment for chronic pain, nerve dam­age or blind­ness.

Guards make sure no one leaves the camp with­out army per­mis­sion.

“Some of the peo­ple be­ing held in Amariyat al-Fal­lu­jah are, de facto, in de­ten­tion,” said Belkis Wille, se­nior Iraq re­searcher at Hu­man Rights Watch.

Qusay Jasser, 54, said he was sell­ing his food ra­tions to pay for reg­u­lar ap­point­ments to treat his daugh­ter’s eyes at a hospi­tal in Bagh­dad. But some weeks, the guards do not let them through. They de­mand a fresh let­ter from the hospi­tal con­firm­ing each ap­point­ment.

“There are 100,000 hur­dles to leav­ing,” said Sabah Ahmed, a Bzeibiz res­i­dent in Amariyat al-Fal­lu­jah.

PHILIP ISSA/AP

Khalwa Hamid holds a fac­sim­ile of a hand­writ­ten form she was made to sign that says she must re­turn to her home.

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