Islamic State families struggle with life after the 'caliphate'

Islamic State families struggle with life after the 'caliphate'
In-depth: Victory against the Islamic State group has seen hundreds of families in Mosul still paying the price of crimes committed by their relatives, reports Francesca Mannocchi.
10 min read
15 March, 2018
Displaced wait outside the distribution items area in Hamam Al Alil camp [Alessio Romenzi]
"During the last days of war we found dozens of children trying to get out of the rubble, they were hungry and traumatised, often injured. Many of them were sons of [Islamic State group] fighters. The majority of them now are orphans."

Ashraf is about thirty years old. He is slim, with a reassuring smile and an honest look. He has lived in Hamam al-Alil refugee camp, about 25 kilometres south of Mosul, since last April, when he managed to escape the city  with his wife and two small children, along with hundreds of thousands of other inhabitants of Mosul.

His family now lives in a village near Hawija, but Ashraf has remained in the refugee camp. He lives in the tent where he works with a local organisation, though he prefers not to reveal the group's name for its security.

After the war he decided to work for others, for the survivors of Mosul, and for months he has been trying to reunite the orphans of Iraq's second city with what remains of their families.

"Regarding foreign children - sons of foreign fighters - we bring them to Baghdad because they should be repatriated through the embassies of the parents' country of origin. But at the moment the majority of them are in orphanages," he tells The New Arab.

"Nobody wants the sons of IS leaders; the embassies have informed us they do not intend to take them into custody. With Iraqi children, the children of Iraqi IS fighters, we have two other problems: the neighbours' desire for revenge, and the fear of their relatives."

Iraq, Mosul: A Boy wait outside the distribution items for displaces area in Hamam Al Alil camp. Alessio Romenzi

Ashraf shows sheaves of documents in his bag, pages of names and photographs of the children with whom he works. In the first days after "victory" was declared over the Islamic State group, many families were keen to accept the sons of relatives who had fought in the ranks of the infamous militant group. 

But soon, villages' "traditions" and desires for retaliation prevailed over family ties.

"At the beginning, we accompanied children to every province - Diyala, Kirkuk, Erbil, Baghad, Basra - but families began to call us back.

"The fathers of those children, who had been IS fighters, had killed villagers, neighbours - and people did not want to accept or host their children. They saw a kind of continuity of guilt between fathers and sons.

"One of the situations that struck me most was a girl who lived for three days with her mother and brother dead under an airstrike. She stayed inside the house, with the corpses, until we could reach her. His brother had lost a leg and she tried to stop the blood, but he died.

"The girl was the daughter of a head of IS, from Kirkuk. No family member wanted to take care of her, [her relatives] told me their neighbours threatened to kill them - and now she is in an orphanage in East Mosul. No one visits her; no one sends her money or clothes."

Ashraf has saved children of all ages, even newborns, born under the rule of the Islamic State group - children who have only known IS "education", the path to martyrdom and war, the normalisation of the most extreme violence: people flogged in the streets, daily public executions.

Some of these children shouted at him, calling him an "infidel" who was "violating the Prophet's land" while he was trying to save them. Children were screaming at the soldiers that they wanted to burn the Iraqi flag they wore. It was "the flag of the apostates", they said.

Traumatised children, innocent and abandoned children.

Photoblog: See more images for this report by photographer Alessio Romenzi

Abandonment and rejection are key words in post-war Mosul.

The families of civilians feel abandoned by the central government of Baghdad, while they try to return home to the city destroyed by hundreds of airstrikes, without infrastructure, without enough water and electricity, without enough schools, without work and without food aid.

"IS families" - the widows and the children of the fighters now dead or imprisoned - feel rejected by everyone.

They are rejected by the families of civilians who want revenge, and by a government which obliges them to leave their homes and forcibly deport them to refugee camps that are now de facto open-air prisons.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly denounced the abuses of Iraqi military forces and Shia militias against IS families.

At the beginning of January, HRW reports, 235 families were forced to leave their homes around Hawija, taken to the Daquq refugee camp in Kirkuk governorate.

While these families were displaced, the Shia PMF militia destroyed and burned homes, stole property and cattle, and beat the men that remained.

"How can Iraq claim it's turned a corner and supports reconciliation when its own forces are waging collective punishment on civilians?" asked Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Nothing positive can be gained from government complicity in furthering divisions in Iraqi society."

Personae non gratae

Many residents of Al Tanak district say that dozens of families in West Mosul were suddenly gathered together, through lists drafted by the residents of neighbourhoods once occupied by IS, together with the mukhtar [the head of each district], by intelligence operatives and members of the federal police.

None were guilty of any crime - but for them, in post-war Mosul, there is no mercy.

If the community decides that families should be hunted down, Shia militias or intelligence quickly deport them elsewhere.

Collective punishments have become the norm, as is the arbitrary execution of men or boys deemed to be affiliated with the Islamic State group.

An old man in Al Tanak tells The New Arab that even today, seven months after the end of the war, when the armed forces arrest someone suspected of being linked to IS, they simply kill him.

Iraq, Qayyara: Jad'ah camp nearby Qayyara. Alessio Romenzi

Women, forced into refugee camps with their children, live segregated in their tents.

They are frightened by the threats they receive from the families of civilians around, the victims forced to live a few inches from the tents of IS families.

Aisha is the mother of an eight-year-old boy who lost an eye to mortar shrapnel, a six-year-old girl who lost a hand in an airstrike - and Mohammed, who, like his father, was an IS fighter. Both of the men were killed in Mosul.

Aisha today lives in Al Jaddah refugee camp. She does not know how she will take care of her son. She has no money, and she is afraid. "The soldiers do not let me go out, we do not have freedom to move in here," she said.

"We are checked on sight. Spied on, insulted. When the bomb hit our home in the old city, I realised that the army was entering the neighbourhood and I went out with my injured children, begging the soldiers to help me. They ignored us. I had to walk miles with the children in my arms. They ignored us. My daughter lost her hand.

"And now we're here, with these people around, beating me when I'm in line for the food distribution, with the doctors who deny me the medicine and the soldiers who do not even give me the right amount of water. What do they want from us? They had their war and they won. My children screamed at night for the fear of bombs just like the others.

"They have had deaths, as we have had deaths, but we have lost much more, we - ISIS people - are suffering more than the others, we have lost our state and our families, our families are destroyed, halved. We are alone."

Aisha is not repentant, she talks about herself - with pride - as a "woman of ISIS". She has no words of reproach for her husband and son who pledged allegiance to the "Caliph".

"No one forced them. They joined because it represented our tradition, our religion, our faith. My son was a good man and I have nothing to forgive him for, this is our destiny and he has no fault.

"But today in front of the Iraqi state we should all be the same, my children are Iraqis like the others, what responsibility do they have?"

The children listen to her in silence, lying side by side on a threadbare mattress. "Two days ago my son spent an hour in line to receive two bottles of drinking water. The soldier guarding the tanker recognised him, spat and called him 'son of a dog'. Since then he does not want to leave the tent."

In the tent nearest Aisha lives Arwa, who also comes from Mosul's Al Tanak neighbourhood. Arwa lives with her sister and those of their children who survived.

"My beloved daughter is dead, hit by an RPG. She was born in 1995, a beautiful girl and already mother of two children. A girl so young, so beautiful and already a widow - her husband died fighting at Al Tanak. Only my youngest daughter survived.

"In Mosul I lost my husband, my children, my nephews. I lost twelve people," Arwa says, sitting in her tent, her niqab failing to hide her tears.

"None of us has ever regretted supporting IS, not even in the last months of the war. Every woman owes obedience to her husband, and I was thirteen when I was promised to my husband. I spent my whole life with him. He was a brother, a friend, a guide.

"The Prophet - peace be with him - says the companion drags his friend. I believed in my husband and every day I asked God to grant him the supreme paradise."

Arwa talks about her husband as a hero, in front of her sister, and their children. She denies, as do all the other widows of IS fighters who spoke to The New Arab, that her husband has committed atrocities.

Iraq, Qayyara: DD section camp in Jad'ah camp nearby Qayyara. Alessio Romenzi

"My husband was not interested in money, my husband was not a greedy man, he was generous and only wanted to establish the law of God. He worked for the Diwan al Zakat section [the group's "Islamic financial authority"], he helped the poor, caring for the needy, distributing money and food to them.

"Sometimes he also gave them sheep, as well as money. To the affiliates more often, of course, but they were always needy people. My husband was an engineer, we had money and wealth. And we gave it to the whole region; he never left a poor man without help. And I pray that his good deeds will count in Paradise.

"He helped orphans and widows. He told me that, even if I were widowed, the members of IS would take care of me.

"But now I'm here, in this camp, locked up in my tent, afraid, mistreated. May God take revenge on those who killed my beloved husband, children and grandchildren."

Arwa's words, like those of other women here, do not reveal repentance or remorse. These women feel that they have nothing for which to repent.

They spend their days trying to avoid insults and abuse, but above all they spend their days talking with their surviving children about the injustices suffered - about the fathers and the brothers considered "martyrs".

They spend their time feeding the same ideology that brought them to al Jadha camp -a camp into which they entered, and from which they can not get out. A camp in which the families of the victims and the loved ones of the giulty are destined to live together in a slow, low-intensity war that is destined someday to break out.

Arwa says the people of Mosul have been persecuted for years.

The first time the Americans searched her home was in 2010, and in a year they searched it five more times. They were looking for her husband, they even arrested him once.

He told her that he felt like a prisoner of war, but also that with the Americans he felt safer than with the Shia.

"They always treated us like dogs," she continues. "The day we arrived here, seven months ago, with my sister and her children, the police told us: 'we will give you no respite'. And that is exactly what they have been doing.

"My sister's children do not play, they do not mix with anyone. Nobody talks with us. Our children walk always looking down, for fear of being attacked.

"There is a man from Mosul here, who lost his children during the war. He walks every day around our tents. He does not knock, he does not enter, he just says: 'One day I will burn the tents with you inside.'

"Then the other day I went out, saying: 'Instead of threatening us, kill us now.' He went away. But he will come back. For me it is already over because I lost everything, but what about our children? Children can not forget because people do not want to forget.

"It is not true that after the wars, people want to forget. After the wars, people are worse than before."

Francesca Mannocchi is a journalist who previously reported from the front lines of the battle for Mosul and on the refugee crisis in Libya. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mannocchia