Approaching the former school building in Baghdad the smell of human sweat mixes with that of sewage and cooked food. Throughout the school women in black robes move about, organizing their lives inside the old classrooms and sports halls, separating one family from another with a tattered curtain or an old piece of board.
One of the residents here is Janan, a 24-year-old originally from Tal Afar, a city in northern Iraq that is near to Mosul. She arrived here two years ago, with her family after the extremist organization known as the Islamic State took control of Tal Afar. Janan, who would only give her first name for security reasons, and her family left everything they owned behind – money, furniture and the sheep they depended on for making a living. Janan’s family lives here, in this abandoned school with another 22 families from Tal Afar.
The school, with a faded sign identifying it as the Sakr Korash School For Boys, isn’t protected by any security guards and the gates have rusted so are difficult to close properly. Piles of garbage litter the playground.
The women in the school like Janan are almost completely isolated. They don’t know much about Baghdad despite living in the Iraqi capital. According to their families’ customs they shouldn’t leave their homes unaccompanied and because the school is now their home, they barely go anywhere. Janan says they keep up with military news on the Internet, their only connection to the outside world, and they also try and communicate with family and friends left behind in the terrain still controlled by the Islamic State, or IS, group.
Janan prepares tea and looks around her solemnly. The dilapidated make-shift kitchen reminds her of the large, comfortable and well-equipped home her family left behind.
The women cannot go out to work but the men here are able to work occasionally, on a daily basis.
Abu Evin is looking for news on his phone. The 53-year-old wouldn’t give his full name or allow any pictures to be taken of him. “The future is far from clear,” he said. “But we are ready to fight alongside the Iraqi army to get rid of the IS group. Even if the members of the group manage to hide among the ordinary people in our town, we will be able to identify them – and we will identify them because we worry that they will turn against us again.”
During his last phone conversation with one of his cousins, left behind in Tal Afar, Abu Evin says that he heard that members of the IS group were disguising themselves as civilians and fleeing the town. He believes that the extremist fugitives would choose to live in Baghdad for a while, for fear of being identified as members of the IS group by angry neighbours.
A woman called Um Mohammed, in her 50s, says that when they speak to relatives and friends in Tal Afar they are very cautious. “We only call at certain specified times and we use coded language,” she explains.
Um Mohammed says that the displaced residents of the school share news about what is going on in Mosul and that they are happy that the extremists are being pushed out of their hometown. Apparently IS fighters are acting as though everything is normal but all of the civilians know something major will happen soon.
The residents at the school say that they are all waiting to return home. However before they leave even this pitiful accommodation, they all say they want to be sure that they will be safe if they go back to Tal Afar. There is plenty to fear, Janan and her sisters say: Acts of revenge against the people of Tal Afar by the victorious or the return of the extremists, many of whom were locals that joined the IS group.