Traumatised by caliphate's reign of terror, Iraq's religious minorities fear plans to resettle IS families
Osman Salah is a member of the Yazidi ethno-religious group from Sinjar. When IS massacred the community in 2014, he fled with his family to Duhok in the Kurdistan Region. They slept on the streets before settling in the Chamishko refugee camp.
Salah has since returned to Sinjar, but opposes any return of IS members to Iraq, especially as some Yazidis remain captives of the group.
"Our families are still missing at the hands of Daesh," Salah told The New Arab, using the Arabic acronym for IS. "There's no reconciliation with those extremists who want to return."
Many Iraqis oppose the return of IS members from Syria to Iraq, including those from non-Muslim groups and the Muslim community. The status of their return, however, is unclear.
'A political matter'
The al-Hol camp is in northeast Syria near the Iraqi border next to a town of the same name. It predominantly houses Iraqi and Syrian women and children who are the families of IS fighters.
|Our families are still missing at the hands of Daesh. There's no reconciliation with those extremists who want to return
However, some of the inhabitants are captives of the group or displaced people who were in IS territory. There are also men and foreigners in the camp. There are 30,000 Iraqis there, according to a December UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a Kurdish-led group backed by the US against IS – controls the camp. SDF territory covers northeast Syria and has an autonomous government with limited recognition from Damascus.
There have been recent media reports indicating the IS families' return to Iraq could come soon. In March, the Arabic-language news site Elaph reported on Yazidi opposition to a camp reportedly being built to house returnees from al-Hol in the Nineveh province.
Also in March, the regional news site Asharq al-Awsat published an article based on interviews with people in the camp and reported that negotiations with Iraq on the return of the families is "ongoing." In February, the Iraqi Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported that Iraqis in al-Hol would "soon" be relocated to a camp in the Nineveh province, citing Kurdish officials.
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UN reports indicate that talks with the Iraqi government to repatriate the families have been going on since at least April 2019.
Multiple UN officials working on refugee issues declined The New Arab's requests for an update on the plan's status. The UN is responsible for documenting the number of people in al-Hol, and works on the negotiations to repatriate them.
A November UN report did note that some Iraqi families had made "irregular departures" from the camp.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) – a monitoring group – also reported that some foreigners escaped from al-Hol and headed towards Iraq in October.
Much of Iraq is now under a lockdown due to the coronavirus. In March, shortly before the virus mitigation measures began, the head of the UN's investigative team into IS crimes said the return of IS-affiliated families is a "political" consideration.
"The returnees are a political matter," Karim Khan of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Dae'esh (UNITAD) told The New Arab at a press conference. "I'm guessing it's being discussed at the government level."
'A disastrous policy'
In the meantime, many Iraqis remain adamantly opposed to the return of IS-affiliated families from Syria. "Every Yazidi from Sinjar is against this decision," said Salah. "This decision is a mistake by the Iraqi government." There are similar feelings in other religious minority communities that IS attacked.
|Every Yazidi from Sinjar is against this decision. This decision is a mistake by the Iraqi government
One Christian woman from the Nineveh Plains – a religiously diverse area north of Mosul IS occupied – said that returning the families to Iraq from detention centres in Syria would be "disastrous" and open up the possibility of an IS resurgence.
"I'm just afraid that if this happens, a new wave of terror attacks will come to Iraq," Shahad Bakoos told The New Arab. "It's a disastrous policy."
There have been several attacks south of Kirkuk, Iraq in recent weeks – some reported to be IS and others carried out by unknown groups. At the same time, US-led anti-ISIS coalition forces have turned over several military installations to Iraqi forces this year.
Some women in al-Hol deny any knowledge of atrocities committed by IS. Bakoos said she does not believe them, though. "They know what their husbands were doing, but still supported them," she said.
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return to life
Women and children make up the vast majority of the al-Hol camp's inhabitants. Bakoos said children should not share the fate of their parents.
"No kids should have to suffer for the actions of their parents," she said. "They need rehabilitation."
Some of those who battled against IS fear a resurgence as well if the Iraqis from al-Hol come home. Elia Badari is an Assyrian Christian journalist who fought IS north of Mosul in the Dwekh Nawsha paramilitary group. He said the families in al-Hol could include committed IS members.
"I'm against the return of Daesh people to Iraq because of the existence of sleeper cells among the families," Badari told The New Arab.
There is opposition to the families returning in Iraq's Muslim community as well, including in Mosul, which was IS' largest city. In February, Iraqi news outlet KirkukNow reported on a letter from politicians in the Nineveh province rejecting the resettlement of al-Hol residents near Mosul. Iraq's outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has also said the families pose a security threat.
Conditions are poor in the al-Hol camp. Kurdish forces struggle to maintain control of the detainees and clean water access remains an issue. There are also fears the coronavirus is present in the camp, according to an April report from the International Crisis Group think tank.
|Some of those who battled against IS fear a resurgence if the Iraqis from al-Hol come home
Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have repeatedly called on countries to take back their citizens in the camp, but repatriations have been limited so far. An Iraqi National Security Council order from last year seen by The New Arab also mandated that displaced people return from camps in the Nineveh province to their provinces of origin.
This could mean that any Iraqis in al-Hol would need to go to their home province, regardless of local opposition.
'Difference between jihadists and regular people'
Views on the IS-affiliated families in the town of al-Hol next to the eponymous camp are mixed. Mohammed Qasim said the camp "scares" him.
"We know they're all Daesh," he told The New Arab. "Why keep them here? It's better if they go back to their own countries."
Ali Hussein, also from al-Hol, acknowledged the camp's inhabitants "threaten" the town, but took a more sympathetic view.
"Some are displaced Syrians and should go back to their homes," he told The New Arab. "There's a difference between jihadists and regular people."
Iraq is now on its third nominated prime minister since Abdul-Mahdi first offered to resign in November amidst massive anti-government protests. The demonstrations are still continuing despite a country-wide lockdown due to the coronavirus.
In addition to the virus, Iraq is dealing with the global fall in oil prices and continued IS attacks. The resolution to the resettlement of Iraqis in al-Hol could still be a long way off.
Adam Lucente is a freelance journalist. He has worked in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and across the region. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_Lucente