The child of displaced Iraqis in Tikrit. (photo: محمود صالح )
Nour Adel* is just over a year old now. But already the little Iraqi girl is persona non grata in her own community. Adel is the child of Wafa, a woman from near the central-southern city of Tikrit, and Adel, a farmer from near Hawija in northern Iraq.
Wafa* met Adel when she and her family were forced to leave Tikrit after the area was overrun by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The extremists had threatened to kill or arrest all the men in the area so the family decided to flee. Wafa’s family ended up in Hawija where they have relatives who took them in.
“A few months later, I married Adel,” Wafa told NIQASH. “He was a very religious person and very calm. He used to work as a farmer until he went to join the Islamic State. I begged him not to go. He left his daughter and me a few months after we married and I was told he was in Baiji. Then other people told me he was in Ramadi. Right now I have no idea where he is and he hasn’t called us at all,” she explains.
Wafa's baby girl is one of what locals describe as either “children of the haram” or “children of the terror”.
After the Islamic State, or IS, group was driven out of the Tikrit area, Wafa and her family returned home to their village. Wafa’s problem now is her baby daughter. Because Wafa and Adel were married in an Islamic State court, Nour doesn’t have any Iraqi identity papers. The marriage wasn’t officially documented and Nour’s name is not on any official register or record.
Which means that Wafa’s friends and neighbours don’t know if she was actually ever married – she can’t prove it – or whether her child is illegitimate. So now the people of her village don’t respect her and they don’t talk to her or Nour, she complains.
Nour is one of what locals describe as either “children of the haram” or “children of the terror”.
Research by Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior suggests that around a third of marriage-age women living in areas controlled by the IS group eventually married members of the extremist group, many of whom were not actually from Iraq. The surveyed areas included Salahaddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar and the researchers also tried to look into the motivations for these weddings.
Religious and ideological factors played a part with the women who took up a more extreme, or Salafist, doctrine of Sunni Islam, preferring to marry members of the group. But some of the wives also said they had simply fallen in love with fighters. And there were also a number of widows and single women who married IS members because of a lack of opportunity to seek out non-IS husbands. Given the lack of a social security system in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a widow often needs to marry again just so she can survive.
The Interior Ministry’s report also indicates that the research it did is unlikely to be completely accurate – there was great difficulty in counting marriages in the areas controlled by the IS group, they admit. The report does however go on to estimate that, based on its research, there are between 250 and 300 children who would fall into the so-called “children of the terror” category.
Local boy, Mahjoub* is luckier than Nour Adel. He has one official document - a certificate saying that he was vaccinated against tuberculosis at a health centre just outside of Tikrit. This is the only document the toddler, who is not even one year old, has that links him to Fadel, his father, another of the IS group’s fighters, who was killed in Baiji several months ago.
Mahjoub’s mother is still living just south of Mosul with her family – she has been unable to get out of the IS-controlled area and Mahjoub is living with his uncles near Tikrit.
Unfortunately for him, this one certificate of vaccination doesn’t get the small boy any other official rights – healthcare, enrolment in school or an official ID.
Of course, as is generally known, the IS group do run the areas they control as though they were a government. While they did not issue identification cards to those who remained in their areas or for newborns, hundreds of marriages have been concluded in the IS group’s own courts of law – governed by religious, or Sharia, law as the IS group defines it – and all of these were recorded, as were names of witnesses to the wedding.
Members of the IS group do not believe they are bound by secular or civil laws of Iraq at all, believing that man-made laws are against the will of God. Nonetheless the marriages were registered by the IS group.
However at the moment, the Iraqi government is not recognising these unions as they were finalized in areas outside of government control. Although as local lawyers have suggested, the marriages may eventually be recognised officially.
The other problem couples married in IS-held terrain have, is that a lot of the IS courts were located in former police or military buildings. These have been targeted by airstrikes by the international anti-IS coalition, which means the registers and documents in them are most likely destroyed too.
Interestingly enough the current crop of issues around “children of the terror” actually has a precedent. The judicial and social confusion they’re causing is similar to the problems caused by similar cases from between 2004 and 2009, when the extremist group, Al Qaeda, was very active in Iraq.
Hundreds of foreigners who fought for Al Qaeda married Iraqi women. The offspring of these unions also had no identification cards or the rights of an Iraqi citizen, and to this day, this problem has not been resolved.
Foreigners in Iraq fighting for Al Qaeda until 2009 also had children; and those children's legal problems are yet to be resolved.
Bilal Ibn Abu al-Bara al-Saudi is one of these children, from the Al Qaeda era. His father fought with Al Qaeda against the US military and was killed in the Adhaim area, south of Tikrit in 2008.
Al-Saudi’s father was married to the daughter of another Al Qaeda member, originally from south of Samarra. After he was born, the child spent seven years without an identity card or any official documents. Now eight, he was unable to enrol in school with his peers and, for a child, he has lived a very lonely life. Many of the other children in town treat him as though he is a lesser person.
Often the families or mothers of these children end up being forced to live this way, staying in specially guarded or isolated areas and homes, often under the protection of some senior community members who ensure their safety.
Al-Saudi’s mother has managed to contact her deceased husband’s relatives in Saudi Arabia and they have told her they will get hold of forged identity papers and passports that will allow her and her son to leave Iraq and move to Saudi Arabia. Al-Saudi’s mother says she would rather live in exile, away from her homeland, than go on with the lonely life she has here so far.
“Iraqi law doesn’t cancel a person’s citizenship even if they are convicted of criminal or terrorist acts,” Saad Mahmoud al-Issawi, a local lawyer told NIQASH. “If the mother or the relatives of the child can prove the nationality of the terrorist or criminal father, and that the marriage was legal, then by rights the child should receive the identity card he needs.”
If a child’s paternity cannot be proven though, then he is classified as “an abandoned child”, al-Issawi continues, and he wouldn’t be awarded Iraqi nationality.
Sitting today in the courtyard of her family’s home, in the middle of a grove of citrus trees, Wafa says her only wish is to have a normal, simple life with her daughter, Nour.
“I just want to live with her in this house where I was born,” she told NIQASH. “I want to carry her in my arms and go to the market, or go to a medical clinic, or go to visit my relatives without seeing everyone looking at me, their eyes full of mistrust and anger.”
*Names have been changed or withheld to protect the families interviewed around Tikrit.