“I felt as though I had lost my sight,” Faez al-Haidari says. “I was surrounded by darkness on all sides and there was nothing I could do.”
Al-Haidari is talking about the moment after he and his family of seven were evicted from their accommodation in Karbala; the group, including al-Haidari's elderly mother who has diabetes, are all displaced Iraqis originally from the northern province of Ninawa. They had left their home last year when the extremist group known as the Islamic State took over parts of Iraq, including their neighbourhood.
Al-Haidari and his family had found shelter in Karbala – they were living in one of 23 local hotels that had been contracted by the Iraqi government to provide the displaced with shelter here, for nine months. However when the contract between Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration and the hotels expired recently, al-Haidari and his family were kicked out into the unbearable heat of the Iraqi summer. And they are not the only ones. There are hundreds more affected by the fact that the ministerial contract was not renewed, apparently due to the financial crisis in Baghdad, which has seen federal coffers exhausted.
“We were actually very patient,” says Abdul-Ridha Shayal, a public relations manager for one the hotels involved. “We actually let the displaced people stay on in the hotel for several weeks after the lease expired. But we couldn’t wait any longer. They could not stay without paying.”
Some of the families refused to leave some of the rooms and the hotels actually cut off power and water to force them to go.
The displaced Iraqis have organised several protests in front of the local government's buildings. They accuse the local authorities of ignoring their plight.
“We had nothing to do with this contract and it was concluded without our knowledge,” local politician Layla Flaih, who heads the provincial administration’s Committee on Displacement and Migration, told NIQASH. “We didn't even know about it which is why we are not interfering in this issue. We wouldn't have any immediate solutions to it anyway.”
About ten kilometres south of Karbala, a new complex for displaced locals is being constructed and when completed, a IQD15 billion (around US$12 million) budget was meant to ensure that there were more than 1,250 caravans for the many families who had been living in hotels.
However there was also never any real deadline for the camp's completion and it seems that as yet not even half the number of dwellings have been built. Now provincial authorities and officials from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration are trading insults and accusations, blaming the other party for the delay.
However the displaced Iraqis in Karbala are not even sure they want to go out to this camp. It is far out of town and lacks basic services, they say. Additionally there is no way for them to earn money living out there.
“A local decision was made banning the displaced from renting houses because we are considered a security threat,” al-Haidari explained to NIQASH. “They are afraid there may be members of the IS group or IS spies among us.”
Nor can families like al-Haidari's leave Karbala easily – they are seen as not only a security threat but also an economic burden. Still there was one small sign of hope as this story was being written. The religious authorities in Karbala, a conservative city and home to Iraq's Shiite religious leaders, announced that they would pay the rent for rooms in the hotels for the next two months. What happens to the displaced families after this, nobody knows.