BALAD, Iraq (Reuters) – Last month, Iraqi authorities gave families displaced by the war against Islamic State just 48 hours to pack up and leave the Al-Ishaki camp before it was closed.
When the deadline expired, pick-up trucks and military vehicles arrived to take about 200 people back to their hometown.
Taama al-Owaisi and others who had lived for years in the camps did not want to leave but they say they were forced to.
An uncertain future awaits them – wrecked towns with no services, surrounded by paramilitaries who regard the returnees with suspicion for having survived life under Islamic State.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes during the conflict in northern Iraq, which started in 2014 when IS captured vast areas and imposed its own rule and ended in 2017 with the hardline Sunni Muslim group’s defeat by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. air power.
Cities, towns and villages – including Mosul, the capital of Islamic States’s self-proclaimed caliphate – were left in ruins.
Owaisi now squats outside an abandoned railway station in Balad, about 90 km north of Bagdhad. His home is two miles away, but he dares not negotiate militia checkpoints to reach it.
Local people blame Shi’ite paramilitaries that control the predominantly Sunni area for abducting and killing eight men in October. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said then his government was chasing the perpetrators and said Iraq should avoid “sectarian rivalry”.
But his government is determined to close camps in most Iraqi provinces by the year’s end-end, a move rights groups say could leave 100,000 people homeless with no aid.
The migration ministry says the closures are part of a program of “safe and voluntary return” but critics say they are badly coordinated and premature while much former IS territory lies in ruins or under the control of groups hostile to those returning.
Owaisi is one of about 23,000 people who have been moved from formal camps with basic services to informal camps since mid-October, according to the U.N. migration agency.
Lahib Higel, senior analyst at International Crisis Group, said the government was “counting on someone else to take care of it, and by that I mean the international community”.
Migration minister Ivan Jabro denied anyone had been forced to return from camps. She told Reuters that returnees were offered help and support.
But more than a dozen displaced people in parts of northern Iraq including Balad, Mosul, Khazer and Qayyara told Reuters they had not received any support from the government.
When the trucks dropped Owaisi and about 40 other families off at a new site in Balad, he said there was nothing there. The earth had not been bulldozed, rubble remained uncleared, and there was no water or electricity.
Families set up their own tents and created their own camp, according to seven people interviewed there.
International aid groups later arrived and provided food, and water. There was no sanitation at the site for almost two weeks. Women went to outdoor toilets only at night because the darkness gave them some privacy.
Mothers complained their children were becoming ill because of the cold. They have no electricity to switch on the heaters.
EXPOSED AND SCARED
Suspicion and resentment around those who managed to survive living under IS runs deep, including in their own communities and tribes, but especially among the Shi’ite militias that helped defeat the group and remain in those regions.
The paramilitary groups have long denied taking any part in unlawful killings. But Ammar Hekmat Muhsin, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said the killings of the eight men showed why people were nervous about returning home.
Balad’s Mayor Muhawish Muhsin said the government has done very little to prepare for the return of its inhabitants.
The migration spokesman denied the areas displaced people have returned to are unsafe, saying that feeling safe is “a state of mind”
A relative of those killed in the incident in Balad said: “This is how it works in Iraq – those with muscles are the ones who survive.”
(Reporting by Amina Ismail, additional reporting by Charlotte Bruneau and Ghazwan Hassan)