Children playing at the Shahama camp, near Tikrit.
Haj Abu Ali says he tried to prevent his teenage son from joining the extremist organisation known as the Islamic State. “But when I challenged him he brought the hisbah [the Islamic State’s morality police] to my house and they beat me and told me that I was no longer his father and he was no longer my son,” Abu Ali, who is in his 60s, told NIQASH. “I found out on Facebook that he was killed around 18 months ago. But I am still paying the price for his recklessness, and that’s why I have ended up in this camp.”
This conversation is being held inside a small tent in Shahama camp, just over ten kilometres outside the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. Abu Ali and his wife live a very simple life here on one side of the camp that has been specially reserved for displaced Iraqis who had a connection with the Islamic State, or IS, group. There is a small barrier running through the camp and on the other side of it are “normal” displaced Iraqis, some of whom were victims of the Islamic State; the two groups can see each other over the barrier.
Although he was young, the IS men took him to Mosul, along with ten others. Since that day, I’ve heard nothing from him.
Most of the residents on the side Abu Ali and his wife live on are best classified as outcasts, social pariahs. They too are families, like Abu Ali’s, who have somehow had a connection to the IS group.
There are hardly any young men on this side of the camp. NIQASH meets Ahmad Mahmoud, 20, one of the few males of fighting age here. He ended up here, he says, after he was arrested by soldiers from the Iraqi army and the Shiite Muslim militias. “They separated me from my family five months ago,” Mahmoud says. “Nobody interrogated me and I never went to any kind of court. I know nothing at all about my half-brother who left us and went to Mosul to fight with the IS group,” Mahmoud explains, adding that he misses his wife and daughter and other members of his family.
Samira Mahmoud, 47 (and not related to Ahmad Mahmoud), is here because of her 12-year-old son. Her husband was actually a police officer but he was killed by a car bomb. She used to receive a pension from the government but after the IS group entered the Shirqat district, where she lived, the money stopped coming. After this, her son joined the IS group.
“Although he was young, the IS men gave him lessons and trained him and then they took him to Mosul, along with ten others,” she explains. “Since that day, I’ve heard nothing from him. When our house was destroyed, we were brought here,” she concludes her sad story.
Two young men carry donated goods at Shahama camp.
Most of the families here came from the same area as Mahmoud used to live in, Shirqat, a former IS group stronghold around 100 kilometres north-west of Mosul, in the province of Salahaddin. Others came via Mosul; as residents in IS-held territory, they went to the city when fighting between the IS group and pro-government forces neared, staying there until the city too was taken back from the IS group. They then surrendered and were taken to the camp. Still others were brought here forcibly.
Life for families who had any kind of connection with the IS group is far from easy in Iraq. For example, on August 30, 2016, the provincial council in Salahaddin decided that IS-affiliated families should not be allowed to return to their homes and should be expelled from the province for not less than ten years. However, the decision has yet to be implemented. This was mainly due to pressure from international human rights groups as well as the United Nations Mission in Iraq, who said the decision violates the Iraqi Constitution as well as international treaties.
One thing the Salahaddin security forces have done though, is to bring many of the IS-affiliated families in the province to the camp. The decision to basically inter the families in this camp was made after a wave of attacks against the provincial security forces at the end of 2016. After this, the security forces deported dozens of families to Shahama camp.
Security at the camp is tight, one officer there told NIQASH. Currently if a person does not have the correct authorization they cannot enter to visit the detained families and only humanitarian organisations are allowed to assist the inhabitants.
It is true that living conditions in the camp are far from comfortable, Bilal al-Abdullah, a civil society activist who works for an international NGO, concedes. “But what is even more uncomfortable is the subject of what happens to families like this after the IS group has gone,” he notes. “There are thousands of families like this in a number of provinces and we need clear security and societal strategies to deal with them, so we don’t end up with a new generation of terrorists.”
It seems that at Shahama camp it is only the children that don’t realize what is going on around them. They play together on both sides of the camp, all with the same darkened skin and lightened hair, because of so much time spent outside in the blazing sun.