(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Fixing Fallujah: City tests Iraq’s ability to bounce back

    Midday in Fallujah and the searing sun beats down on the dust-caked roads. The salmon-hued General Hospital towers prominently over the city: ground zero for a rebuilding and reconciliation process that holds vital clues about Iraq’s ability to move on from so-called Islamic State.


    What was once a fully functioning medical facility that served 400,000 local people has yet to recover from two and a half years of war and IS rule.


    A main entrance is covered in soot and peppered with bullet holes. On the first floor, a pungent smell emanates from the depths of a charred, darkened corridor that leads to what was the emergency wing.


    The authorities have yet to inspect that part of the building, even though it’s been more than 15 months since IS was driven from the city. “It could be sewage,” offers a member of staff, “or dead [IS] bodies”.

    Fallujah 3

    Sofia Barbarani/IRIN
    Much of Fallujah's main hospital has been rendered unusable by years of war

    Fallujah became the first major Iraqi city to fall to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his army in January 2014. IS used part of the hospital to treat fighters. Their clothes and belongings are still strewn over the floors.


    Some staff said fleeing fighters set the first floor alight in an attempt to destroy incriminating evidence. Others faulted the extent of the general destruction on frequent shelling by the Iraqi army as they surrounded the city. Fingers were also pointed at Shia militias allied with the army after liberation in June 2016.


    Wherever the blame lies, entire blocks of Fallujah are still covered in rubble. Charred buildings and crumpled cars are a frequent sight and dilapidated mosques have been temporarily shut down.


    As a majority-Sunni city in a country where the central government is dominated by Shia Muslims, what happens next in Fallujah really matters. Its population has been seen as supportive of al-Qaeda and, in turn, IS. If Iraq hopes to move forward, this is where change must come.


    Sectarian resentment


    On the surface, Fallujah looks like other former ghost towns clawing their way out of post-IS disarray – alive with myriad rehabilitation projects led primarily by the UN and local partners.


    Businesses are cropping up – ice cream shops, a vegetable stall laden with produce, a Friday bazaar – but most people don’t have much to spend. At his family gold shop, 34-year-old Ali Nouri said trade was slow: his only clients were couples looking for wedding rings.


    “If anyone has any money, they'll use it to fix their home," he explained, in front of a stall of shining, unsold rings and necklaces. 


    There are 42,000 homes in the city and the UN is looking to repair 21,500 that were partially damaged – other aid organisations are aiming to fix up another 600. According to one local NGO, almost 2,000 homes were completely destroyed here between 2014 and 2016 – as yet aid agencies do not have plans to rebuild these houses.


    The sewage system and the water supply have been restored and both the central government and the UN say the vast majority of the population has safe water again – although you could never drink it from the taps. The electricity grid is only operating at half capacity. Many households are still forced to use private generators.  


    The process of getting basic infrastructure going has been slow, in part because the city first had to be cleared of mines and other explosive remnants of war.


    But some locals say Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Shia-dominated government is neglecting Fallujah by design. It’s no secret IS found a welcome in pockets of the city, and Sunnis across Anbar Province accuse Baghdad of ignoring liberated areas exactly for this reason.


    “All these [reconstruction] projects haven’t even covered 30 percent of what Fallujah needs,” Karim Aftan, a wealthy city resident and former Iraqi minister of electricity accused of corruption by the present government, told IRIN. “The government is not interested in Fallujah.”


    The home of Abu Hamed*, an elderly colonel, was left practically empty other than a few items he was able to bring back to Fallujah from the north, where he and his family were displaced for three years. His home was looted while they were gone. “The government has done nothing to reconstruct,” he said. “On the contrary, if they can destroy more, they will.”

    Ali Hamad, a 35-year-old Imam whose mosque was partly destroyed by what he claimed were government-backed Shia forces, agreed: “So far there’s been no money; the government hasn’t given us anything to rebuild houses.”


    But according to UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande, the government is playing a part in rebuilding Fallujah, including facilitating the renewal of the main hospital, where although less than 40 percent of the structure is usable, a newly refurbished area is pristine and chock full of equipment.


    “[The hospital] is a good example of the kind of collaboration that has to happen to get Fallujah back on its feet," she told IRIN. “It's important that people feel that the government is there for them... The government needs to win the trust of the population. This was lost during IS' occupation. It's a race against time to win it now."


    Economic woes


    While some residents were adamant the central government was intent on crippling Fallujah for sectarian reasons, others blamed the lack of financial support on the costly war against IS, and Iraq’s flailing economy.


    NGO-funded rebuilding projects mask the economic reality in the city. Fallujah’s populace is largely unemployed and has very little money: Savings were spent on fleeing IS and surviving displacement.

    Fallujah 4

    Sofia Barbarani/IRIN
    Some shops have reopened in Fallujah, but business is slow

    Young, educated men with university degrees like 27-year-old Moath Abdulhdi join the UN’s Cash for Work programme and sweep Fallujah’s unpaved streets for $20 a day. But with the programme set to last just six weeks, it’s unclear where the 300 men involved in the scheme will turn once it’s over.


    Abdulhdi is one of four brothers, all university graduates, and all unemployed. Their situation is far from unique. Adil Khalifa, a 37-year-old father of five with a degree in accounting, has also signed up with Cash for Work. “I was forced to take this job because there is no other option,” he explained.


    Peter Hawkins, UNICEF’s representative in Iraq, told IRIN that eventually investment in basic services like these needs to come “primarily from the government” and then be “only supplemented” by organisations like the UN.




    “The government says it doesn’t have any money,” Fallujah Mayor Issa Saer al-Assawi told IRIN.


    Iraqi government finances are, of course, overstretched. Officials would argue that clean streets aren’t a priority, especially with the war ongoing – al-Abadi recently announced a new offensive on IS in Hawija.


    Whatever slow rebirth is happening in Fallujah is largely down to UN and NGO funding. But al-Assawi suggested more could  be achieved if aid organisations stamped out graft. “Unfortunately, the corruption and the contractors have made it hard to rebuild. There is a lot of money but less reconstruction.”


    One aid worker from a UN-contracted NGO told IRIN the only way to operate efficiently in Anbar Province, where Fallujah sits, is to play a part in the corruption game – paying off private companies more than the cost of projects, just to get work started.


    “Unfortunately, we all have to do this,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Most projects are only at 70 percent of what they could be because the money goes into other people’s pockets.”


    UNICEF spokeswoman Sharon Behn Nogueir said there should be no compromises when it comes to corruption: “It only serves to exacerbate insecurity and disillusion in a country that is already reeling from years of insecurity.”


    UNICEF said it had built a number of procedural steps into its programming to avoid corruption, including audits to secure accountability and transparency.


    Torhan al-Mufti, minister in Baghdad’s Higher Commission of Coordinating among Provinces, maintained that the government had zero tolerance of graft.


    “The government is very serious about corruption issues,” he told IRIN in response to the allegations. “There is an investigative bureau in each ministry, a finance over-watch in each project. The government is trying to prevent it, and if there is corruption they will deal with it.”


    Several Fallujah aid workers and others sources insisted that corruption was, nevertheless, commonplace.


    Looking forward


    Not everyone has been able to come back to Fallujah. Those alleged to have sympathised with or joined IS, as well as their families, languor in camps with little hope of seeing their homes anytime soon.


    For both those in camps and returnees, there are challenges that go far beyond bricks and mortar: There is grave disillusionment, suspicion of Baghdad, and fear of powerful Shia forces – the same sort of grievances that have given rise to extremism in the past.


    Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher on Iraq Belkis Wille stressed the importance of Baghdad’s role in putting an end to the abuses of Sunni Arabs by the state and allied Shia-majority militias.


    “One [Iraqi] judge said the reason they have IS is because the Americans didn’t kill every prisoner in [Camp] Bucca,” Wille told IRIN, referring to a US-run prison that held mostly Sunni prisoners during the second Iraq War and is widely cited as the birthplace of IS. “As long as that is their mentality, we do run the risk of seeing… young men as easy recruits for extremism in future.”

    Fallujah 2

    Sofia Barbarani/IRIN
    As the sun begins to set in Fallujah, young men take turns jumping into the Euphrates


    As dusk settles on Fallujah the call to prayer resonates from a partly destroyed minaret, filling the roads with its melodic chant.


    A gaggle of men listen intently from the banks of the Euphrates, gazing out at the bridge where 13 years ago insurgents hanged the charred bodies of two slain American contractors.


    The bridge’s silhouette betrays its half-shattered structure.


    “They say it was an Islamic State car bomb,” says 34-year-old Abu Mohammad.


    But the young father-of-two doesn’t believe this theory. He blames it on the Shia militias. Next to the downed bridge, a group of young boys swing themselves into the murky waters and race each other upstream.


    *Name changed



    Fixing Fallujah: City tests Iraq’s ability to bounce back
  • Local aid workers on the front line of South Sudan’s civil war

    Gunshots suddenly crackled as Stephanie and her colleagues went about a routine seed distribution in a small farming community in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.

    The moment she heard the bullets zipping through the air, the young aid worker knew the country’s civil war had caught up with her.

     “[There were] bullets everywhere. Rampant shooting and three dead – one was a child, one was a pregnant woman and one was a man,” said Stephanie, whose real name has been changed to protect her identity.

    Back then, the 26-year-old from the south-central town of Kajo Keji worked for a local aid agency without the means to coordinate or pay for a rapid evacuation of employees. 

    With the help of other staff on the ground, Stephanie had to formulate her own evacuation plan: She used the river to navigate to Ethiopia, rented a car, and drove to the Ethiopian city of Gambella. Once in Gambella, Stephanie bought a plane ticket back to the relative safety of Juba, the South Sudanese capital.

    “I think that if it was an [international] NGO evacuation perhaps they would have sent a flight to pick me up, but I had to find my [own] way out. At the end of the day, I was reimbursed,” she explained, matter-of-factly.

    Easy targets

    Danger is by no means a rare experience in the aid world, where agencies provide help in the most difficult of circumstances. But no aid workers risk quite as much as national staff.

    Eighty percent of the estimated 208 aid workers killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded worldwide in 2016 were local, according to the Aid Worker Security Database’s most recent records. 

    Last year, South Sudan overtook Afghanistan in the list of countries with the most attacks on aid workers, with an estimated 82 humanitarians murdered since the start of the country’s civil war in December 2013. There were 24 deaths in 2016 alone, according to the UN’s humanitarian chief in South Sudan, Eugene Owusu.

    The worst month so far for humanitarians was March this year, when six aid workers and their driver were killed in an ambush in Pibor, in the country’s east. Four of the dead were national staff, all belonged to Grassroots Empowerment and Development Organisation, a UNICEF partner.

    No one has been held accountable for the murders, though a vigorous blame game has ensued between the warring factions.



    aid worker south sudan
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Local aid workers are on the front lines of the humanitarian response


    Access problems

    The humanitarian needs are immense in South Sudan. As a result of a vicious civil war between sides loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, 5.8 million people are in need of aid, about 3.6 million have been forced from their homes, and famine has been declared in parts of Unity State.

    The proliferation of armed groups hinders humanitarian access and the delivery of aid.

    “The spread of conflict across South Sudan has made humanitarian access negotiations more protracted and complex, impacting the work of aid organisations,” said Ian Ridley, head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination office in South Sudan.

    “Humanitarians face repeated challenges to reach people in dire need as a result of clashes, insecurity and access denials,” explained Ridley. “Aid workers continue to be killed, injured and harassed across the country, and humanitarian compounds and supplies continue to be looted and vandalised.”

    Checkpoints are manned by soldiers and rebels, making road travel risky – both in terms of insecurity and the bribes demanded. Similarly, the heavy presence of armed groups on the Nile’s leafy banks means the river is off limits. UN charter flights are therefore the only safe option for aid delivery and staff transport to remote areas – something smaller national organisations cannot always afford.

    Forty-year-old Panther is the country director of a local NGO that works to improve living conditions for vulnerable youth. According to him, limited funding to smaller local NGOs can result in recklessness and bad decision-making.

    “Our project support is entirely from donors and if funding isn’t there then decisions like these are made,” he said in reference to the six aid workers killed in the March ambush.

    “Their organisation could have done better. The road [they were on] is only used by traders. I’ve never heard of humanitarians [using it],” said Panther, who asked that his surname and the agency he works for not be disclosed for security reasons. “I think it was probably negligence,” he added.

    Whose side are you on?

    According to OCHA’s Ridley, there is a limited willingness by donors to give directly to national NGOs.

    “National NGOs are on the very front lines of the humanitarian response in South Sudan and therefore face multiple challenges. This includes threats and harassment by parties to the conflict,” he said.

    “As the conflict has spread and deepened, [national] NGOs have faced allegations of bias, based on perceived political affiliations or alleged allegiance due to ethnicity,” said Ridley.

    Regardless of whether they operate in a small local organisation or a powerful international one, on an individual level, South Sudanese humanitarians will always be exposed to one overarching risk: the conflict’s ethnic dimension.

    The government and its army are seen as Dinka-dominated. The Nuer are associated with the rebellion, although much of South Sudan is now a patchwork of ethnic militias.

    “Locals have ethnic and tribal challenges, and their own families are affected. They are heroic, resilient people,” said Perry Mansfield, country director for World Vision. “National staff are keeping the country alive.”

    However, having a team that is comprised primarily of local staff is not without its challenges.  “We can’t put Nuer to work in a Dinka community,” explained Mansfield, a reference to the fault line between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups.


    Nowhere to run to

    Johnson Beek, a Nuer and World Vision employee, recalled the day one of his friends, a World Food Programme worker, was murdered by armed men.

    “He was arrested and killed. So many guys in the humanitarian world have been threatened or even killed,” said Beek, standing amid rows of white tents in a Protection of Civilians site near Juba. Just like the thousands of people in the camp, he too has been displaced by this conflict.

    South Sudan has nearly 200 organisations delivering emergency programmes, including community-based groups, national NGOs, international NGOs, and UN agencies.

    World Vision is one of the biggest, and is where Stephanie works today. A multi-billion dollar organisation, it can afford to be thorough when it comes to security procedures, although it cannot expunge all risks.

    “I think I feel safer than when I’m in a local NGO,” said Stephanie. “When I was signing my contract, [I asked:] ‘is there any means of evacuation should there be any insecurity’. This is my first priority when I’m taking an offer.”

    But she is also aware that when a conflict takes a turn for the worst, it is the national staff and national NGOs that remain.

    “International NGOs can leave, but these NGOs remain always on the ground, always with their people,” she said, with more than a hint of pride.


    TOP PHOTO: Aid worker and children CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski

    Local aid workers on the front line of South Sudan’s civil war
  • Venezuelans forced to live off scraps, but aid shut out

    It’s barely dawn and the streets of Caracas are largely empty, except for heavy-eyed commuters heading to work and hungry Venezuelans scavenging through the rubbish for breakfast. 

    The men and women meticulously pick their way through foul-smelling black plastic bags in the hope of finding some edible scraps. Passers-by don’t give them a second glance. This is an increasingly common sight in Venezuela’s capital.  

    Despite having one of the world’s largest oil reserves, years of government mismanagement along with a tumble in oil prices have led to the catastrophic collapse of Venezuela’s economy, food supply, health system, and basic services, leaving a population desperate for help – more than eight in 10 Venezuelans now live below the poverty line.

    Food shortages have forced Venezuelans to drastically cut their daily food consumption, with more than 41 percent of the population now eating just two meals a day, according to findings by local research firm, More Consulting.

    Meanwhile, doctors are struggling to treat even simple infections and chronic illnesses due to a severe shortage of medicines and medical supplies. Even water is in short supply following several years of drought.

    According to a Datanalisis poll, Venezuela is experiencing shortages of 80 percent of foods and medicines. A spiralling inflation rate means that even those goods that are available are mostly unaffordable to all but the wealthiest.

    And yet, the government has continued to deny the existence of what is by now a well-documented humanitarian crisis, blaming it instead on a “financial war” waged by enemies of the state.

    NGOs treated like spies

    The government’s stance means that international and local NGOs attempting to alleviate the crisis face numerous obstacles.

    “It’s been a while now since we began seeing an increase in threats, harassment and even physical attacks on activists and NGOs,” said Inti Rodriguez of local NGO, PROVEA.

    PROVEA tackles the complex issue of human rights in Venezuela, including citizen’s rights to medicine and food. Like other non-profits, the government has accused PROVEA of receiving financial backing from foreign organisations, including the CIA, and of being agents in an international conspiracy to oust President Nicolas Maduro.  

    “This was a constant [problem] during [the administration of former President] Chavez, but it has increased with Maduro,” said Rodriguez, who was abducted in February 2014, allegedly by a coalition of government-affiliated guerrillas and the Venezuelan intelligence services, SEBIN, who beat him and questioned him about his humanitarian work.

    NGOs in Venezuela have felt particularly vulnerable since 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled that individuals or organisations receiving foreign funding “with the purpose of being used against the Republic” could be prosecuted for treason and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

    The threat of imprisonment has modified how NGOs communicate both with the public and with each other. Staff often encrypt sensitive information before sharing it with others and rely on networks to keep each other informed if colleagues run into trouble with the authorities.

    “I think they’re very brave and they keep doing their jobs, but it’s a very hostile environment for local organisations to operate in,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, which released a report last month about Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

    The cost of denial

    Rodriguez noted that those most affected by the government’s restrictions on NGOs are the very people they seek to help. “[They] feel intimidated when they go to an organisation that has been pinpointed as an enemy [of the government]. Authorities try to intimidate the victims so they won’t come to us.” 

    In February, Maduro turned down the opposition’s request to enroll the country in a World Health Organization programme to receive subsidised medical supplies. And in May, his administration blocked an effort by the opposition-led National Assembly to pass a law that would have facilitated international aid and authorised the shipment of medicines from abroad.

    “We’ve tried to request permission to allow help into the country, but there are specific criteria [in place] to allow the entry of medicine and food products,” said Janeth Marquez, national director for Catholic charity, Caritas.

    In August, three tonnes of medications that Caritas had secured from Chilean donors were blocked from entering the country and held in the port town of La Guaira. The organisation has been waiting ever since for the Ministry of Health to issue an elusive document that would allow the aid in. By next month, some of the medicines will expire, rendering them useless.

    “Medicine can only come in via the state, and only during emergencies will they allow them [to come in] through other means,” said Marquez. “We are worried because there are people whose lives are at risk.”


    Meridith Kohut/IRIN
    Venezuela's public hospitals have run out of most medicines and supplies

    Finding a way

    Some local NGOs have managed to get around restrictive border controls by shipping small amounts of aid in private packages.  

    “It’s the only way,” said Ana Isabel Otero, founder of Comparte Por Una Vida, a seven-month-old non-profit that receives donations of baby formula and nutritional supplements from around the world and distributes them to children in hospitals and orphanages.  

    Such interventions are urgently needed in a country where rates of infant mortality have nearly doubled in recent years, according to internal Ministry of Health reports obtained by Human Rights Watch. Doctors also report that they are seeing increasing numbers of malnourished babies.

    And yet, Otero struggled even to register her organisation as an NGO. “The places where you go and register are complicated; there are mafias [operating them],” she said. “I had to register in three different town halls. It took me five months before I was registered.” 

    Caritas, along with other NGOs and activists, has been calling on the government to open a humanitarian corridor that would allow urgently needed aid into the country.

    “This [corridor] needs to be approved… it goes beyond politics and political interests,” said Marquez. “If we can’t do this, if we can’t even agree on the lives of our own people, we’re in big trouble in Venezuela,” she added.

    Papal intervention

    An agreement to allow international aid into the country is one of the numerous issues the opposition is pushing for during Vatican-mediated talks with the government that started in October.

    Few international NGOs have been given permission to operate in the country. Those that are present are required to inform the government of their every move, and none have been authorised to run large-scale medical assistance programmes to address the crisis in the healthcare system.

    Médecins Sans Frontières, which partners with local organisations to provide mental healthcare to victims of urban violence in Caracas, responded to questions from IRIN that it has “a low coms approach” in Venezuela. Other international NGOs that IRIN contacted for this article also declined to comment.

    “Their biggest concern is that they fear losing the limited authorisation they have to operate,” said Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, which also struggled to get international NGOs to go on the record for its recent report.

    UN agencies operating in the country, including the WHO, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and UNICEF, have also kept a low profile and did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment. “They can’t do much without government authorisation. They say their hands are tied because of that,” said Vivanco.

    “A big problem is that they haven’t done a public independent assessment of the crisis,” he added. “You have [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon saying there’s a humanitarian crisis, and still, the humanitarian agencies that have the capacity of doing an assessment and engaging with the government to palliate the effects of the crisis in the short term do not appear to have done it.”

    In July, 50 Venezuelan NGOs penned an open letter to Ban accusing UN agencies of remaining silent about Venezuela’s crisis and “failing to fulfil its responsibilities”.

    Four months on, the need for the Vatican-backed talks to yield a breakthrough grows by the day.


    Venezuelans forced to live off scraps, but aid shut out
  • Iraqis flee Islamic State only to find themselves detained

    In early April, they risked their lives to flee the so-called Islamic State. But after walking 11 hours from their hometown of Hawija in northern Iraq to the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled territory, Mustafa and his exhausted family of six found no freedom.

    Since being transported by truck from northern Kirkuk to Nazrawa camp, south of the city, they haven’t been allowed to leave. They are now stuck, among some 2,200 inhabitants of a camp critics say has become a de facto detention centre for Sunni Arabs.

    Iraq’s internally displaced are citizens of the country, and retain the right to move freely inside the country. However, having lived under IS for nearly two years, the more recently displaced are viewed as being potentially supportive of IS.

    In addition to that, the remnants of long-standing Arab-Kurdish antipathies have further damaged an already fragile dynamic between the ethnic groups.

    Refugee influx

    The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government has struggled to cope with an influx of displaced people fleeing IS territory – well over a million since January 2014 – and after Kirkuk authorities appealed for help, Nazrawa was opened in November 2015. It was paid for with donor funding from 10 countries, including the United States, and is administered by a charity, International Relief and Development.

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, funds administration and management costs, but the Kurdish government is in charge of security. While Kirkuk officially remains under Baghdad’s jurisdiction, it is really Kurdish-controlled, giving the Kurds a large amount of leverage both in the wider governorate and inside the camp.

    As thousands of internally displaced Iraqis flooded into the KRG at the start of the year, escaping an increase in coalition airstrikes and the crippled IS economy, Kurdish authorities reportedly concluded that that the militant group had plans to use the movement of civilians as a Trojan horse ploy to infiltrate Kurdish-controlled areas.

    This in turn prompted the already wary Kurds to issue an order: civilians were not to leave Nazrawa camp.

    On 11 March, UNHCR flagged forcible relocations and disproportionate restrictions on civilians’ freedom of movement as matters of “great concern.”

    UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rumley said all residents were being forcibly relocated and confined to the camp, regardless of whether or not they had completed a security screening required of all new entrants to the KRG.

    The NGO that runs the camp, IRD, didn’t respond to several requests for comment. The KRG dismissed the accusations, calling them “unacceptable” and accusing UNHCR of exaggeration. 

    “We reject that any of the camps in the Kurdistan region, or any other camps with Peshmerga [Kurdish military] forces, have been detention camps for IDPs,” KRG spokesman Dindar Zebari told IRIN. 

    Zebari referred to Nazrawa as a “temporary camp,” set up to screen civilians far from the dangers of the frontlines, where they are free to come and go as they please.

    “The government of Kirkuk decide to help these IDPs on the basis of humanitarian support,” he emphasised.

    But Human Rights Watch says there are no active clashes in the areas the IDPs were being taken from.

    “The folks who were forced on trucks and buses to Nazrawa said there was no fighting where they were,” HRW senior researcher Christoph Wilcke told IRIN.

    Ease brings little relief

    Since the March report, restrictions on movement have been eased. UNHCR told IRIN that civilians are now allowed to leave the camp, but only if they can ensure their return.

    This means that civilians must leave their identify documents with camp management, or have a family member vouch for them. The first option is not viable for most, as travelling without identification is unsafe and means they will not be able to get through checkpoints.

    For civilians without identity documents, family members are required to leave their own with camp management until their relatives return to the camp.

    Critics say this means the camp is still, essentially, a detention centre.

    “It’s a centre where freedom of movement seems to [now] be restricted by indirect means,” Wilcke told IRIN. “The people we spoke to said they were free to leave but their freedom was restricted by having to leave their IDs.”

    Mustafa told IRIN that Kurdistan’s security forces detained him for 12 days to ensure he was not a member of IS. Meanwhile, his wife and children were taken to Nazrawa, where they were eventually reunited. “My ID card is still being held by… [Kurdish security] and I cannot go outside the camp,” he said.

    To a certain extent, Mustafa at least knows why he can’t leave: his ID is still to be returned to him. Others have no clue.

    A young girl IRIN spoke to, 13-year-old Khanza, said she hadn’t been allowed to leave despite having an uncle and two siblings in Kirkuk. Another man, Omar, visits the camp regularly with food for his wife and three children who have not been granted permission to leave Nazrawa, despite having family members in Kirkuk who can also vouch for them.

    Deteriorating conditions

    In addition to catering for his family, Omar also provides food for some of the single men inside the camp – young unmarried men are deemed a greater security threat than family men and he says they face heightened discrimination.

    Food is not always readily available, as commercial trucks don’t have regular access to the gated entrance. With no work in the camp, residents are exhausting their savings and forced to rely on aid distributions.

    Fadila, 41, counts on her neighbours’ charity to provide food for herself and her four children. Her husband died five years ago, making her a single female head of household – financially disadvantaged and often socially segregated.

     “I feel like we live in a big prison,” she told IRIN.

    This is not the first time Iraq’s Kurds have been accused of implementing overly severe rules in camps inhabited by displaced Sunni Arabs, with similar reports coming from Garmawa camp in Nineveh and Laylan camp in Kirkuk.

    Similarly, reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have also been critical of Kurdish treatment of displaced Arabs.

    The major military operation to retake Iraq’s second city of Mosul from IS is only in its early stages.

    “In the months ahead, as areas are retaken by the government, we have to assume that hundreds of thousands of people, maybe even a million people, are going to be screened by authorities,” Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told IRIN.

    “The UN is concerned that screening is done appropriately and transparently and in ways which are consistent with international best practice.”

    As the Iraqi military trudges northward, displacing hundreds of thousands of people along the way, the situation in camps like Nazrawa takes on an ever-increasing importance.

    With additional reporting by Ali Arafa

    * Names used are not their real names


    Iraqis flee Islamic State only to find themselves detained
  • Survival on Sinjar mountain

    Bapir Hassan Saed owned 100 sheep before the so-called Islamic State took control of his village in northwestern Iraq in August last year, killing one of his sons and forcing him to take flight.

    More than a year since he and 50,000 other Yazidis scaled Mount Sinjar with the militants on their heels, Saed is among 8,750 of the Kurdish religious minority left on the arid mountain range. He has just four sheep now, which provide his large family with milk, yoghurt and wool. 

    “It’s hard to keep the family going, but we’re forced to stay here,” the father of 10 told IRIN.


    A Kurdish man on top of Mount Sinjar
    Tom Robinson/IRIN
    Bapir Hassan Saed has not found a job since moving to the mountain and struggles to provide for his family

    Since their dramatic escape from IS to the mountain, most Yazidis have moved on to refugee camps in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, and others have sought safety in northern Syria.

    Of those who remain, some chose to stay and join the fight against IS, while others were too frail to leave. All agreed that despite the publicity surrounding their persecution and exodus, they aren’t receiving nearly enough help.


    Behind Saed, worn-out tents dot the plateau, most airdropped by Western countries when the displaced Yazidis first reached the mountaintop. They are tattered. Some families have built skeletons of wooden planks and draped tents or plastic covers over them, fashioning one or two additional shelters. 

    “The tents are not warm enough and we don’t have kerosene for the cold season,” lamented Saed, from beneath his thick white moustache. Winter is fast approaching, and by December the temperature will reach freezing point.

    A stone’s throw from Saed’s tent, 26-year-old Nofa takes a break from her daily routine of washing, cooking and collecting wood to enjoy the meek autumn sun with some female relatives. 


    A Yazidi woman prepares bread dough on top of Mount Sinjar
    Tom Robinson/IRIN
    Donated flourmills mean locals can produce their own bread during harvest season

    Several Yazidi children died of exposure on the mountain last winter, Nofa said, and the absence of proper medical facilities makes the cold especially dangerous. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) told IRIN 280 people had perished on Sinjar since last August, but couldn't speak to the cause of the deaths.

    “This year we’ve bought our own tents and covered them in plastic, they cost us 500,000 Iraqi dinar (around $400),” Nofa said.

    No electricity poles line the plateau. Solar panels outside Nofa’s tent provide the family with enough electricity to power a few light bulbs and charge mobile phones. Panels, distributed by an aid organisation, can be seen next to most tents. 

    The remnants of former NGO activity can be seen in the form of recycled World Food Programme boxes and the solar panels, but the absence of aid workers on the mountain is stark, and only a few provide regular support. 

    The mountain is a microcosm of the divisions that plague intra-Kurdish relations. Almost all the militias and political parties in the region have some stake in the fate of the mountain and the city below – it’s on a major oil pipeline – and at least two Kurdish militias have a presence here.

    For some NGOs, this makes maintaining impartiality tough, especially as some of the Yazidis themselves are fighters. For others, it means extensive negotiations and complex distribution mechanisms to make sure aid gets to the right people. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it. 

    Just a few kilometres from an active front line, some charities are simply unable to access the stranded Yazidis.

    “From the difficulties of access and security concerns to the highly politicised nature of the operating environment, implementing humanitarian projects [on Mount Sinjar] can be challenging,” Tom Robinson, director of the local charity Rise Foundation, told IRIN.


    Most Yazidis on the mountain are unemployed: they survive on savings, subsistence farming or the little aid that does make it up the mountain. Old-timers, who were here before last year’s influx, sell the tobacco they have always grown. 

    In March, a Japanese charity installed 12 communal water tanks and has since been trucking 24,000 litres of water to the mountain each day. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a nationalist militia that arrived on the mountain at the same time as the Yazidis – has also built at least one well and supplies some people with fuel for their water trucks. The dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has begun building a well too. 


    A Yazidi man guards a water well on top of Mount Sinjar
    Tom Robinson/IRIN
    Sulaiman Aiso receives a salary for guarding the PKK-built water well

    For $100 a month from the PKK, Sulaiman Aiso guards one of the wells and operates the generator that pumps the water. He says he is 45, but looks decades older. 

    “Some 50 people come to fill up each day, sometimes more because they own sheep,” Aiso told IRIN over the rumble of the generator. Everyone is welcome to use the well as long as they share the water with their neighbours, he explained.

    Scattered throughout the area are also five flourmills, donated to the displaced community in May by Rise and another aid organisation. These are an enormous help as during the harvest season the machines can provide a tonne of flour every eight hours, enabling a self-sustainable production of bread. 

    But as the harvest comes to an end, many Yazidis have had to turn to buying flour rather than grinding wheat. While Baghdad’s Public Distribution System, a government food subsidy scheme, was once committed to supplying each citizen with nine kilos of flour, the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar are far beyond their reach.


    Flour and vegetables, among other sundries, can be found in one of the several little breezeblock shops on the side of a long snaking road on the mountain. A 50g bag of flour costs $5.

    The owner of one of the shops said business was going well, despite the widespread unemployment. He opened a few weeks ago after giving up on finding another job.

    Inside the shop, the minute structure was dark and rudimentary and a group of young men sat in a cramped corner eating sunflower seeds. The shelves were stocked with eggs, cooking oil, cigarettes, nappies and beer. 

    “I work with a partner who brings the merchandise [from the cities] up to the mountain,” the owner said. “The prices [in the shop] are the same as those off the mountain.” 


    Yazidi children in front of a small garden on top of Mount Sinjar
    Tom Robinson/IRIN
    Some families have small patches for growing crops like tomatoes and onions


    A Yadizi man on top of Mount Sinjar with a rifle slung on his shoulder
    Tom Robinson/IRIN
    Concerned about the threat of an IS attack, most men on the mountain own a gun

    Down the road, two Yazidi civilians practise shooting their rifles while a gaggle of children roams around them, unruffled by the noise, vigorously blowing into whistles fashioned from empty bullet cartridges. There are two schools on the mountain, but most of the kids apparently aren’t attending.

    The guns are theirs, the men explained, and they use them to protect their families. Although the displaced people of Sinjar Mountain have been able to recreate a relative sense of normalcy, the roaring anti-IS coalition jets and militia fighters among them are a constant reminder of their proximity to war. At the southern foot of the mountain, the battle for Sinjar City, still controlled by IS, rages on. 

    If and when Sinjar City and its surrounding villages are delivered from IS control, it is unlikely that the displaced Yazidi population – a total 400,000 by the KRG’s count – will be able to return home soon: demining and restoring infrastructure will take time. But most here are not thinking that far ahead. They’re focused simply on making it through the winter. 

    The sun begins to set around 5:30 pm, and the last plumes of grey smoke can be seen rising from clay ovens where dinner’s bread is baking. The terraced tobacco plantations and the adjacent cluster of tents and mud brick homes fall into darkness. Solar-powered light bulbs slowly light up the sprawling plateau.


    Children play on top of Mount Sinjar as the sun sets
    Tom Robinson/IRIN
    A game of football on top of the mountain, as the battle for Sinjar City rages below
    'It’s hard to keep the family going, but we’re forced to stay here'
    Survival on Sinjar mountain

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