It was when her husband bought the black pyjamas for her son to wear that Fallujah resident, Shahd Ahmad – not her real name – began to worry. “I knew we were in danger when he too began to wear the black Afghani costume that the fighters from the Islamic State wear,” she says. “He even began to talk like them. I went to my husband’s family to ask for help, I wanted them to convince him not to join the extremists and to escape the city. But every time I tried to talk to him about it, he gave me the same answers I would expect from the extremists.”
Ahmad took her two daughters and son and succeeded in leaving the city on her own. “My husband is missing, his brother is dead and his father is in prison,” says the 32-year-old, now living in a camp for displaced people in Amiriyat al-Fallujah, who says she cannot return to her city despite the fact that the Islamic State group were pushed out around five months ago. “And we are paying a high price for my husband’s behaviour. At the checkpoint we discovered our family is wanted by the authorities. We cannot leave this camp to return home. It seems that the rest of our lives will be stained by the fact that my husband joined the Islamic State group.”
According to local officials, many of the people in Fallujah who joined the extremist organization, which took control of many parts of the central Iraqi province of Anbar in early 2014, have managed to leave the city in the meantime. Some of these members were killed, others were arrested.
There are also a large number of women and children associated with the male members of the IS group – nobody knows whether they are in the camps, whether they may stay or return home or how to take care of them.
Not all those who decided to remain in Fallujah were members of the Islamic State, or IS, group.
Another resident of the camp, Abdul Wahab al-Muhammadi, 49, says he has been arrested by the Iraqi security forces several times. Every time they arrest him, they accuse him of being a member of the extremist organisation, simply because he remained in the city.
Al-Muhammadi wanted to remain in his own home but at the same time he wanted to stay well away from the armed group. “But the nature of my work obliged me to deal with them,” he says; al-Muhammadi is a barber. “So other locals thought I had joined the IS group.”
Our society is punishing women and children for mistakes they did not make.
As a result al-Muhammadi and his family are basically stuck living in the camp.
“I have no chance at all to return to my hometown. I don’t think we will ever succeed in convincing others that we are innocent, or to clarify what we were doing in Fallujah all that time,” he says. “We often ask: Why can’t we go home? And the indirect answer is that we are the families of the IS group and that nobody will accept us in society again.”
Dozens of families in the camp are paying a similar price, he says, for similar pragmatism. “We can only dream about our old lives,” al-Muhammadi concludes.
It is hard to know how the problems faced by families like al-Muhammadi’s and Ahmad’s can be dealt with. Local tribes have demanded that anyone who collaborated with, or joined, the IS group be evicted from the province. The central government in Baghdad doesn’t appear to have a strategy either.
“The tribal leaders in Anbar and other community leaders signed a pledge in which they oppose the return of IS families to the liberated cities,” Taha Abdul Ghani, a member of Anbar’s council, told NIQASH. “They also insist on restricting the movement of these families and they insist that the families apply to the central government to clarify their position.”
Meanwhile some local authorities have a plan of sorts, Abdul Ghani adds. “The local government is intending to create special camps for the families whose sons are accused of IS membership, in the interests of keeping the peace and to control any tribal conflicts that might arise should these families return to their homes,” Abdul Ghani explains.
It is unfair that the women and children associated with the men who chose to join the IS group should be judged in this way, says another of the camp residents, who wished to be known only as Um Ali, or the mother of Ali.
“The moment the IS group occupied our neighbourhood I started fighting with my husband,” Um Ali told NIQASH. “I wanted to leave the city and told him so but it was as if I was talking to myself. Everybody around us knew that he and one of my sons joined the organisation, even though we tried our best to persuade them not to.”
Um Ali says that just like her, many of the wives and children didn’t choose loyalty to the IS group. “The men impose their opinions on the women and they have the right to do so, as husbands,” Um Ali explains. “All members of the family have to live in these miserable conditions.”
Um Ali, who is in her 40s, used to live in a big house on a farm in the Saqlawiyah district, about ten kilometres northwest of Fallujah. Now she’s living in the displaced persons’ camp with her daughter and five grandchildren.
“We don’t have the right to healthcare or education and there are risks if we go to a government department,” Um Ali tells NIQASH. “We have become strangers in our own country and our society is punishing women and children for mistakes they did not make.”