"It's taken us a long time to get here, but we can start again. We've had to do it many times before. At least we are home now," says 68-year-old Aziz Khurshid.
For Aziz and his family, home is an abandoned Iraqi military building on the outskirts of the northern city of Kirkuk. "It's not exactly home, but it is close enough to where our village used to be," he told IRIN.
Forced to flee his village, some two kilometres south of Kirkuk city, the Khurshid family have been on the move for almost 17 years. Aziz recalls that fateful day in December 1986 when in the early hours of the morning he rushed to bundle his wife and two children onto a tractor and fled for his life.
"People were saying that our village would be next, but I didn't want to believe them. Then, one morning, we heard the shelling in the nearby village. I told my wife to pack a few things, mainly food and clothes, and we decided to leave. Since then I have never looked back," he said.
In a move to subdue the mainly Kurdish-populated part of Iraq once and for all, the Ba'thist regime destroyed some 4,000 Kurdish villages between 1980 and 1988. Human rights groups estimated that up to a million people, mainly Kurds, but also Turkomans and Assyrians, were displaced as a result.
Along with tens of thousands of others, Aziz and his family were forced into "collective towns", far from their farms and economic support. Rights groups often highlighted the sub-standard living conditions in these purpose-built towns. Observers say the intention of the regime was to make the fiercely independent rural Kurds dependent on the Iraqi authorities for food, water and social services.
"The conditions at Bin Aslawah [10 km east of Arbil] were terrible. There were too many people there and not enough water. Our children were getting sick all the time. So we moved to another collective town, hoping conditions would be better. But it was worse," Aziz said.
Barely making ends meet, the Khurshid family has since lived in three collective towns across northern Iraq. That was until two months ago when news spread across Iraq that the decades of Ba'thist rule had finally ended.
"At first I couldn't believe it, and now I still don't fully believe Saddam has gone. Not until I see him either arrested or in the ground will I be at peace. But when we heard the news that the Americans had taken over, we thought we should come back to Kirkuk. We had nothing in the collective town, and now we still have nothing here, but we feel more safe because it is our home," Aziz said.
Unlike several other public buildings occupied by returnees, the Khurshid family has water. Through a series of complicated electrical hot-wiring, they also have a steady supply of electricity. Their biggest concern is their dwindling stock of food.
"There is very little left of the food that we managed to store. With no money, we are sure to have problems very soon. I am too old to work now and my daughters cannot find even tailoring work. What will happen when there is nothing left?" he told IRIN.
For 37-year-old Reza'iyeh Husayn and her husband, who live in another abandoned building further down the road, the homecoming to Kirkuk has been wrought with difficulties and painful memories.
"When we left in 1991, we had a house, but now we don't have any papers to show that it belonged to us. Without papers, we cannot prove anything. My husband has no job. We can only depend on the food ration, and we haven't received that for the last two months," she told IRIN.
In 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, the Iraqi government used the Republican Guard and other units that survived the war to quell an ensuing rebellion by the Kurds in the north. Recalling the terror used against them three years earlier, it is estimated that close to two million people fled for the Turkish and Iranian borders.
For Kurds like Reza'iyeh and her husband who decided to stay in their homes, life became unbearable as the regime stepped up its 'Arabisation' policy. Villages, neighbourhoods, and at times individuals were expelled through a subtle mix of targeted violence and bureaucratic repression.
In order to weaken the 'undesired' communities, the regime promulgated administrative rules prohibiting non-Arabs from purchasing property, renewing licences for economic activities, or attending school.
"It was too much for us. My husband could not find work anywhere. We were constantly watched without knowing why. My brothers were arrested many times, and up until today we don't know what happened to some of the men from the area," she told IRIN.
But while their departure from Kirkuk became inevitable given the continued harassment from Iraqi authorities, the tragedy that was set to befall them continues to haunt them today.
Barely two months into their stay at the Dubs collective town, Reza'iyeh's three-year-old toddler was electrocuted while playing with a live wire.
"That place was not fit for humans to live in, but we had no choice. I regret I ever went to live there," she said. "We're glad to be back, but I cannot help but blame Saddam and his soldiers from forcing us from our homes. Maybe if we had stayed, my baby would still be alive today."
According to the United Nations, some 15,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are at present in Kirkuk city, the majority of whom are old caseload Kurds [those who predate the recent war], and who are now returning from the three northern governorates [of Dahuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah], as well as from the western governorate of Anbar and its main city, Al-Ramadi.
However, the situation is fluid as people are returning to their areas of origin daily. A recent inter-agency assessment of 150 families who had settled in Kirkuk stadium found that most of the group had arrived from Tikrit, but originated from Kirkuk.
The assessment showed that while some of these families did have relatives in the city, they were unable to accommodate returning IDPs. Moreover, whereas some of the families had owned property in the city, it had either been destroyed or was occupied by squatters.
Although the findings of the 29 May inter-agency assessment to Kirkuk, which focused particularly on the humanitarian needs of IDPs have not yet been released, preliminary results show that many of the recent returnees have adequate food supplies and, according to the World Food Programme, have "some cash which they use to buy additional food in the market".
The current challenge, however, for humanitarian agencies is the development of a coherent strategy to address the myriad of problems facing returnees.
"It is important that along with the local authorities that a policy is put in place so that humanitarian assistance may be delivered in a manner that benefits both the host community and those who are returning. This would go towards diluting some of the tensions between different groups in the future," one UN official told IRIN. "The international community has to make sure that people are returning to conditions that are conducive to them continuing productive lives," he added.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions