Basa’ad has spent the last two years in a camp in Iraq’s western desert, slowly losing her eyesight and coming to the realisation she might never go home.
One of her sons, aged 25, was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking a job as a water truck driver for so-called Islamic State after the militant group took over her small village near Fallujah.
This association means she and her extended family are unable to receive the security clearance all displaced Iraqis need to return to their villages, towns, or cities.
Across the country, thousands of Iraqis – families of IS members, even their drivers, cooks, and cleaners – are stuck in the same limbo: rejected by their own societies and left to an uncertain future.
“I’m living in a very bad situation,” Basa’ad says, clasping her tattooed hands as she sits on the floor of her tent in Anbar province’s Ameriyat al-Fallujah camp. “I’m so tired, and I can barely see… What will become of me?”
Her question is one Iraqi officials and local leaders are struggling to answer. Most agree this sort of prolonged isolation doesn’t bode well, neither for those unable to leave the camps nor for the future of the country. But nobody seems quite sure what to do.
Fear of radicalisation
Iraqi officials, especially those from majority Sunni Anbar province, are quick to point out that they have firsthand experience of the relationship between lengthy detention and extremism.
The US Army held tens of thousands of men in Camp Bucca, not far from Basa’ad’s hometown, as it fought off a violent insurgency that grew after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Prolonged detention provided fertile breeding ground for radicalisation: by the time Camp Bucca closed in 2009, it is believed to have held no less than nine men who later formed the leadership of IS.
It’s a cycle nobody wants to see repeated. Khaled Saadi al-Yawar, who represents Anbar on the prime minister’s National Reconciliation Committee, tells IRIN he doesn’t want his children to see the violence that was visited on his hometown of Ramadi, the provincial capital that IS occupied for more than seven months in 2015.
He calls stopping the pattern “a war without a rifle”, and believes it will only be won if the families of IS members – now mostly in camps – are reintegrated into society.
“I don’t want my kids to live the same tragedy I live,” al-Yawar says. “And if I continue punishing the children of IS, I will eventually create an enemy for my children.”
But that doesn’t mean al-Yawar, or other Iraqis who fell victim to IS, are ready to let bygones be bygones. Fallujah mayor Issa Saer al-Assawi says that while he wants to see family members come home again, it’s still early days.
“To live under IS control for three years, it’s not a short time, and it’s not easy to fix.”
“We live in a tribal society, and [bringing families home] is a complicated process,” he says. “We’re worried about revenge attacks by those who can’t separate between the family and the crimes of the son or father.”
There is a path home for those with connections to IS, but it’s not one everyone is willing to take.
For any family in Anbar, returning home means first obtaining permission from multiple intelligence and military bodies.
This process involves several (sometimes conflicting) databases, usually takes months, and is easily drawn out by the smallest complication, like having the same name as a wanted member of IS.
For those related to convicted IS members, or related to those missing or dead who are suspected or known to have been members, one path home can be renunciation – declaring, in court, that they have no connection with their relative who belonged to or worked with IS.
Al-Assawi says this happens; he’s even seen fathers go as far as signing warrant letters for their own sons.
But not everyone is ready to make this sacrifice, including Basa’ad, whose other four sons and husband are missing. She opted not to renounce her son even though a tribal leader told her it was the only way she could go home.
“I will not renounce him,” she says, with tears in her eyes. “I don't know what is going to happen to the rest of my family... I only have him in prison, to be released in 15 years. That’s the only son I have.”
Re-education and reconciliation
Many officials insist IS families need some sort of re-education before they can go home, but there’s been no countrywide attempt to make this happen.
“With these families, especially with the kids who have committed no sins – it was their fathers – the issue needs to be resolved ideologically,” Sattar Newrouz, spokesman for the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, tells IRIN. “It’s possible some of them have been negatively influenced by the thoughts and beliefs of terrorists.”
The government doesn’t want to leave these families in camps, he says, but they need to “look after... those who might be easily influenced by extremism.”
We are lying to our people and to ourselves; we say that we are securing Iraq [from IS and extremism] but in reality we are creating an extremist generation.
Fallujah mayor al-Assawi would also like to see some sort of re-education process, and says the government’s reconciliation committee should be consulting psychologists, doctors, security officers, and tribes to get it right. So far, he says, the committee is moving “very slowly”, and from what he’s seen “all they have done is held workshops in Baghdad.”
Al-Yawar, whom IRIN met at one such event in the Iraqi capital, agrees that the committee he sits on isn’t doing nearly enough – but he says that’s because it has virtually no budget to put its plans in place.
The workshop was hosted by Sanad for Peacebuilding, an Iraqi non-governmental organisation bringing together leaders connected with Anbar – including al-Yawar, tribal sheikhs, and security officials. It was aimed at rethinking a covenant many tribes signed (but not all implemented) when IS first came to Iraq, putting in place strict barriers to return
The officials mulling how and when to bring families back home all say they know camp life was hard, and they often mention the harsh conditions displaced children are growing up in. But they are also concerned about what separating one group of Iraqis from society could mean for the future of the country.
“We are lying to our people and to ourselves; we say that we are securing Iraq [from IS and extremism] but in reality we are creating an extremist generation [by keeping families in camps],” says General Tariq Yousef al-Asl, deputy commander of the Anbar Hashd (Sunni tribal militias who have officially joined up with the majority-Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces).
“Not necessarily an Islamist extremist generation, but maybe [an] ideological or criminal [one],” he adds.
In the absence of major government initiatives, it’s often left to tribal leaders to conduct small-scale reconciliation in their communities.
Sheikh Fawzi Abu Risha, one of the leaders of a powerful Anbar tribe, describes vouching to the security services for the parents of a dead IS fighter. This was after he had held many meetings with their neighbours to remind them that the couple had committed no crime.
He says the tribes interested in reconciliation (not all are ready yet) need more support from the state “to distinguish between who is clean and who is dirty”.
Abu Risha says he knows how difficult life is for the family members stuck in camps. But it’s been hard for him, too. Asked how he’s able to think about helping the relatives of men who killed his own family, the elderly sheikh tears up: “We just feel sympathy for the kids and women, this is the main reason. We will sustain the pain and suffering, just for the kids.”
It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.
This demonstrates the important impact that our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and shine a light on similar abuses.