Like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis, Maha lives with her boys at a camp for the displaced near Mosul. But there’s a big difference — her father and husband worked and fought with the Islamic State jihadist group.
“Men go off and do what they want, they never listen to us,” said the young woman, a new arrival at the camp in the Al-Jadaa area, south of Mosul, by way of excuse for their actions.
The camp is home to 18,000 people displaced by several months of warfare in and around Mosul between IS and Iraqi security forces backed by the US-led international coalition also fighting the jihadists.
More than 80 families, mostly women and children who had a husband or father among the ranks of IS, have this week been transferred to the Al-Jadaa camp.
Maha’s father worked for IS, distributing pensions to the families of dead fighters. He himself died in an air strike on the Maidan district of Mosul’s Old City, the last to fall before Baghdad announced victory on July 10.
“When we left (Mosul), they questioned us. They told us they ‘want the truth’. We told the truth,” she said, without disclosing to AFP the fate of her husband.
Originally from farmlands south of Mosul, her family moved to the city in October to escape the advancing Iraqi forces.
“Nobody has harmed us. We have been well treated,” said Maha, her face covered by a scarf that only revealed her eyes and a worried look.
Hamza, five, and four-year-old Khattab were huddled around her legs, clutching her jalabiya robe in its autumnal colours of yellow, orange and red-brown.
– ‘We were living the good life’ –
Unusually for the many camps for the displaced in northern Iraq, four armed soldiers kept watch near the area where the new arrivals have been resettled.
But the women and children have freedom of movement outside their tents.
Encircled by howling and crying small children in one of the tents, sisters Khawle and Nawal reminisced about the life they were forced to leave behind in Mosul.
“They say they saved us. From who? They are the ones who bombed us. We were left to walk over bodies everywhere,” said Nawal.
Khawle broke in with a sigh: “We were living the good life. They treated us well,” she said of IS.
Their father, a former bus driver in his 60s, had signed up with the jihadists to work as a mechanic.
Saad Faraman of RNVDO, an Iraqi NGO in charge of running camps in Al-Jadaa, said: “It’s our duty to accommodate them, to provide them with aid, just like we do for all the displaced.”
The IS-linked families were transferred from a “rehabilitation centre” in Bartalla, close to Mosul, which received at least 170 families before it was closed, according to Human Rights Watch, which last week criticised the existence of that camp.
“Iraqi authorities shouldn’t punish entire families because of their relatives’ actions,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at New York-based HRW.
“These abusive acts are war crimes and are sabotaging efforts to promote reconciliation in areas retaken” from IS.
Some of the others displaced in Al-Jadaa admit they are somewhat uneasy with the co-habitation.
“Women and children are not a problem. And it was the government that transferred them here,” said Mohamed Zeid, a former policeman who became a shepherd after IS swept into the Mosul region in 2014.
“They’re in their tents and I’m in mine. We’re not together,” said Zeid, wearing a white jalabiya and red keffiyeh headdress.
Ahmed Najeh, 40, also chose his words carefully: “I would be lying if I said I feel comfortable. Of course there are some worries.”
The camp stands only six kilometres (less than four miles) from an IS-held zone, said Faraman, adding that three IS fighters had recently been killed as they advanced in the direction of the camp.
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