For some time now, local woman Um Ahmad al-Qaysi has been living alongside around 1,400 other families in a camp for the displaced from Salahaddin. The 69-year-old’s real home is on the banks of the river Tigris, in the Baiji district, in the province of Salahaddin, and she left there due to the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
Al-Qaysi hopes to return home someday soon and, once again, sit on the river bank with the other old ladies from the neighbourhood in the afternoons.
The flow of returnees slowed to a trickle, then stopped completely in June, apparently due to objections from the Shiite Muslim militias - although nobody knows why.
However, when her son Ahmad went to visit their hometown, he found that along with thousands of others, their home had been reduced to rubble after the Islamic State, or IS, group were driven out of the area. All the trees in their garden were dead and the oil refinery he had worked for in Baiji was damaged; it would take a long time before he was able to work there again, if at all. Al-Qaysi’s son said he started crying when he saw the damage that had been done to his hometown.
The IS group had been able to control the area for around two years and the Iraqi military, who fought to remove the extremists from the area, battled them for over a year before they were successful. It is estimated that almost three-quarters of the city was destroyed in the fighting. Many say that it will now cost billions to rebuild the city, once home to around 205,000 locals, and the refinery. And that is, if reconstruction ever happens.
It’s hardly surprising then that former residents have chosen not to return. The Salahaddin municipal council and the governor have tried to convince people to come back, but they have been unsuccessful.
Salahaddin council member, Kamel Abbas, has called upon the federal government for help.
“The schools and health centres of the district need to be reconstructed so that they are ready for the people who return,” he points out. “Most people do want to come back because they are living in difficult circumstances in the camps,” he adds.
“According to a team of surveyors who came to check the damage, around 80 percent of Baiji’s infrastructure has been destroyed,” Baiji's mayor Mohammed Mahmoud told NIQASH. “More than 7,000 homes, shops and businesses are totally destroyed. The city needs major government assistance.”
There is also a lack of services, such as power and water. Getting these back on is made difficult and dangerous because of the number of booby traps the IS group left behind.
And there are other issues that also dissuade potential returnees. Some of the displaced began to return home in February of this year. Around 100 families retuned to Baiji and the nearby towns of Malha and Mazraa. But they were only able to do so, after security vetting by a number of military forces in the area, including the Shiite Muslim militias, the local police and the military.
“After several months, the people that passed the vetting were given certificates that allowed them to return to the area,” Mahmoud explains.
After this though, the flow of returnees slowed to a trickle. It stopped completely in June, apparently due to objections from the Shiite Muslim militias - although nobody knows why. Up until August 2017 only 500 families have returned, and they are almost exclusively former residents of the Asri neighbourhood in Baiji. Mahmoud estimates that only around a quarter of residents have come back again.
The Baiji refinery, Iraq’s largest, will also require major investment to return it to full operating capacity. It was a major source of employment for many locals.
“We are fed up with all the meetings and delegations,” says Khalid Ali al-Janabi, a Baiji community leader. “We can only conclude that there are other things that we cannot know about, that are causing this delay. We have realised that there are obviously things that are more important than the suffering of the people and the priorities for the local economy.”
Back at the camp for Baiji’s displaced, al-Qaysi has not given up hope. “However long it takes we will return to our homes,” the elderly woman told NIQASH. “We had nothing to do with what happened and with what is happening now. This has everything to do with the politicians and we, the people, are their victims.”