No way home? A road sign outside Jalawla in northern Iraq. (photo: دشتي علي )
Just over a year ago the extremist group known as the Islamic State was driven out of the northern Iraqi town of Jalawla. In late November 2014, Iraqi Kurdish military managed to expel the extremists, who had taken over the town earlier in the year. But up until today the population of the town has not returned – only the Iraqi Kurdish military and their colleagues in the Iraqi Kurdish intelligence service live here.
“More than 80,000 people were forced out of their homes here,” says Yacoub al-Luhaibi, the mayor of the Jalawla sub-district. “Many of them are still living in nearby camps and in very difficult conditions.”
“Every day they tell us we can return soon,” a woman who wished to be known only as Umm Bassem told NIQASH; she has been living around 20 kilometres north of Jalawla in the Kifri district for the past year. “But that day never comes.”
According to al-Luhaibi, the federal government in Baghdad sent a committee to Jalawla to assess damages there. Power, water and sewage lines have all been damaged in the fighting, making the city unliveable. “After the committee came to visit, they reported that Jalawla needed at least US$100 million to make the necessary repairs to services,” al-Luhaibi said.
All of the government departments in Jalawla remain closed even though the civil servants are still being paid – most of them, including al-Luhaibi, do the work they can, from in their homes.
“Huge amounts of money are needed and there is also need for close coordination between the government of Iraqi Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad,” Jassim Mohammed, Iraqi Minister of Displacement and Migration, told NIQASH. “But until now that has not been satisfactorily resolved. Repairing electricity, water and sewage services is going to take a long time and we still don't know if there are improvised explosive devices in the city or not.”
The IS group are well known for leaving improvised bombs, or IEDs, behind when they withdraw and the Iraqi Kurdish military report finding many barrels of explosive material as they clear surrounding towns and villages.
Other than this, Mohammed says one of the main problems is the question of who should be allowed to return to Jalawla. The town is part of Iraq's so-called disputed territories. It had hosted a mainly Arab population before the Islamic State, or IS, group captured it. But Iraqi Kurdistan has also argued that it was a mainly Kurdish town before that, in the 1970s, until former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, tried to “Arabize” areas populated by Kurds.
“Also, some of the Arabs of the city took up arms against the Kurds and fought alongside the IS group,” Mohammed explains.
Senior members of the Iraqi Kurdish military say that many members of a local Arab tribe, the Karawi, joined the extremists and their neighbourhood, Tanjib, became a stronghold for the IS fighters. When the IS group fled the city, most of the residents of this neighbourhood left with them.
Some of the Arabs in Jalawla say they left the city because the Iraqi Kurdish military have deliberately destroyed their homes so as to prevent them from returning. Part of the Tanjib neighbourhood has already been levelled, they confirm.
Iraqi Kurdish military commanders avoid talking about the demolition of houses but they are also clear about the fact that they do not want the Arabs affiliated with the IS group to return to this area. This is another source of tension between the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan and the federal government in Baghdad, which believes that Iraq's Arabs are a part of the society in this area and should be allowed to return.
“The Iraqi Kurdish military will never allow the Arabs to return to Jalawla,” senior Iraqi Kurdish military commander, Mahmoud Sankawi, told NIQASH. “Their hands are stained with Kurdish blood.”
The Iraqi Kurdish military say that they won't allow any Iraqi military force to enter the area either. “We don't mind if a combined force is formed,” Sankawi explains. “And we don't mind if that force reports to both the central government and the Iraqi Kurdish government. But the force must be under our supervision. It is very important for us to supervise this force because above all we want to prevent the security forces from being infiltrated by terrorists.”
“Jalawla is now stable but there are certainly fears that armed groups may reappear if the Sunni Arabs come back and begin these activities again,” says Akram Saleh, a senior member of the local branch of Iraqi Kurdistan's most popular political party, the KDP.
In the meantime, the Iraqi Kurdish have also changed the city's name in a sign of their control of the town; they call it Kolala, which is the Kurdish name for the place.
“But the name is the last thing anybody is worried about,” Sankawi tells NIQASH. “The only thing most Kurds and Arabs alike are really concerned about is when they get to come back home.”