by Belkis Wille
Across Iraq, there are men, women and children – perhaps over 100,000 if one extrapolates from statistics the government has issued on people detained on terror charges – that society has labeled “ISIS families.” In some cases, their fathers, husbands or sons are alleged to have picked up arms with the Islamic State (ISIS) when the group took control of their village. In other cases, a family member merely chose to keep showing up for work at their local hospital or government office once ISIS took control of the area in which they lived.
Most of these families are living in camps that the international community built for families displaced by the fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS between 2014 and 2017. Though these camps house “regular” displaced families as well, they have become de facto prisons for these so-called “ISIS families.” What happens to these people may be one of Iraq’s most significant obstacles to national security and future stabilization.
Over the last two years, I have visited over a dozen of these camps outside of Mosul, which ISIS took over in June 2014 and maintained control of for three years. The camps are run by a range of local and international humanitarian organizations. Since the fall of ISIS, most families with perceived ISIS affiliations have been told by their communities, tribal leaders, government offices, and even Iraq’s army that they are not welcome to return home, and these camps are being used to enforce such policies. I have seen security forces at the gate deny families their right to freely come and go, either for a simple hospital visit or to return home.
The root of the obstacles facing these families is something that on its face sounds somewhat benign: a security-screening regime.
Security officers have told me that when ISIS began taking territory, many Iraqi families fled those areas, and when they first came into contact with Iraqi or Kurdistan Regional Government security and military officials, gave them names of neighbors who they accused of taking up arms with ISIS. Forces that have a legal mandate to detain, hold and interrogate terrorist suspects, and even some that don’t, put these names on wanted lists — without much coordination between them. This can lead to for possible rearrests of people already cleared by one group for release. They have been using these lists to hold people, including in unofficial prisons, and prosecute them, sometimes based on confessions extracted by torture.
Lawyers, as well as judges, that Human Rights Watch has spoken to across Iraq, say these lists create inherent problems because of the prevalence of common names — for example, a name like Muhammad Ahmed. If it is flagged, it can lead to anyone in Iraq with that name getting arrested, sometimes multiple times. “Same name” cases are swelling prison and court numbers, according to senior judges in courts in Nineveh and Baghdad. Staff at several local companies and organizations have told me about recent internal disputes, where one employee has threatened to add a colleague to one of these wanted lists — as this is proving to be an effective way of meting out personal or familial revenge.
In tandem with these roundups, everyone who needs to contact the government—for an identity card, passport, birth or marriage certificate, or simply to enter a courthouse, has to undergo a security screening to ensure they are not on one of these “wanted” lists. The families of people — most of them men or boys — on the lists, whether rightly or wrongly, routinely fail security screenings, particularly if they are unwilling to pay bribes to officials. Some are threatened with arrest, sometimes to lure in a relative on the list who isn’t already in custody.
A senior judge we interviewed in Mosul and a lawyer working at an international organization told us that the Interior Ministry has issued an order that says to get a security clearance, families of ISIS members must appear in court to provide information about the suspected person’s whereabouts and activities and “denounce” them- both of them saw the order. Lawyers who have tried to assist these families are being threatened and, in some cases, are even arrested themselves.
The family members who haven’t been arrested end up stuck in the camps. And, since most lack at least one important civil document, they are at risk of being arrested at checkpoints, and cannot get a job, or obtain a death certificate to inherit property, or dissolve their marriage.
In these camps, I have met women who tried to remain in their homes after Iraqi forces retook their neighborhoods, but were sent to these camps by military or security officials against their will. One elderly woman, Nawfa Hadi Hussain, told me she fled her home for a camp in March 2017, but returned that June, after neighbors said her house had been burned, with “ISIS” graffitied on the wall. She moved into a small side room that had not been destroyed with her daughter and granddaughter. In September, federal police came to the home, she said, claiming that neighbors had complained about their presence, as an “ISIS family,” because both of her sons had joined the group, and sent the women to a camp, which housed other families accused of ISIS ties.
Many of the families in the camp who are perceived as ISIS-affiliated have no male relatives with them. Hussain and other women detained with her told me that when they arrived, the male security officers confiscated the few identity documents they had, snuffing out any chance they might have had to return home at will.
I have seen three instances in which camp security officials from various military and security bodies verbally abused families for allegedly having a son who joined ISIS. I saw one yell at a woman, “Why didn’t you poison your son when you cooked him his dinner, once you knew he joined ISIS?” I have seen these same guards, armed with AK-47s, weave through the tents, intimidating and threatening women and children, in violation of the civilian and humanitarian character that are supposed to be found at such a camp. Camp management staff and men from the community have told the aid groups running the camps that more and more women are coming forward to report these men for pressuring them to have sex in exchange for small amounts of money.
An international aid group told me that at a camp in Anbar, it received reports that guards are demanding sex from women if they want to leave the camp to receive medical assistance, or even to visit their husbands in prison.
In the camp where Hussain is being held, armed security forces brutally beat a local lawyer who is living in the camp and working for an international organization that’s trying to help families get documentation so they can return home. Security forces later claimed to us that the lawyer was outside his tent after an 8:30 p.m. curfew. But even if there was a curfew, that is no justification for the abuse. Lawyers have told us they do not feel safe trying to help these families.
Out of desperation, some women confined in the camps have started divorcing their husbands or obtaining a death certificate, and remarrying men seen as “clean” so they will be allowed to leave. But such new marriages create complications, because these new husbands do not want to raise the women’s children. The children are seen as tainted by their fathers, and it is customary for children to remain with their fathers or paternal relatives if their mothers remarry.
Over the last month, I interviewed four grandfathers and an uncle who are the de-facto guardians of their sons’ or brothers’ children, in a camp near Mosul. The father of “Kareem,” told us that his son died in December 2016 in the town of Shirgat while it was in ISIS hands. Kareem’s wife “Hanaa,” 28, was left behind with three children, ages 3 to 9. He told us:
[Hanaa] left us three months ago to find a husband in Shirgat, so that she could return home. I don’t know anything about the new husband, all I know is that he refused to take in my grandchildren. [Hanaa] tries to visit them from time to time, but it’s not easy for her. I will take care of them until I die, but then what?
Another grandfather told us, “I will raise my grandchildren as my own.” But even when children are lucky enough to have relatives willing and able to step in and support them, forcing women to choose between remaining with their children in confinement or leaving them to be able to go home is a tragedy.
To make matters worse, families usually can’t get a valid birth certificate for children born in ISIS territory. So, they can’t enroll in school, even schools inside the camps. What will happen to these children as they grow up. “Ammar,” 47, told us he is raising his two grandsons after their mother was able to negotiate her way out of the camp six months earlier to find a new husband and remarry. She hasn’t visited her children since. His son, their father, went missing in Mosul two and a half years ago. He said:
“Neither of the boys have any identity papers, and I cannot get new documents for them, as their parents would need to be present to do that, and even then it would be really hard. What is the fate of my grandsons?”
The conditions in these camps are grim and getting worse, as international humanitarian aid for Iraq’s displaced is drying up. Families have told me the water they are given is so dirty that they are using stockings, rocks, and sand as makeshift filters. Suicide has become common in at least some of the camps, international monitors and camp management have told me.
The Iraqi government has sanctioned this camp detention policy, without any publicized national reconciliation strategy or plan to remove the obstacles facing these families and facilitate their safe and dignified return home, or local integration elsewhere in Iraq. The government also appears not to have developed a response to the sexual abuse and exploitation or to address the protection needs of the female-headed households. As far as we can tell, the government has also failed to set aside funds to provide services in the camps, as international funds taper off—and with them some of the oversight by aid groups.
It is hard to view this prison camp policy targeting families with perceived ISIS affiliations as anything but short-sighted, fundamentally destabilizing and criminal. It has echoes of policies in Iraq’s recent past, in the context of de-Baathification, which many feel may have contributed to the rise of ISIS.
Iraq’s new government will take office in the coming weeks and will need to urgently engage in planning to release all families being held against their will, and to open reconciliation discussions at all levels to bring communities back together and facilitate principled returns.
While ISIS continues to carry out individual attacks, the war is largely over. Iraqis should now be asking their government whether the security clearance system is appropriate to regulate all interactions between citizens and their government. The new government needs to scrap the entirely inappropriate, onerous and de facto abusive system that has been weaponized to collectively punish women and children, leading to further marginalization and risk of extremist recruitment. In this post-conflict phase, if Iraq is to move forward, the task for the new Iraqi government should be to ensure that all of its citizens feel safe and protected.
Belkis Wille is the senior Iraq researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, where this essay originally appeared.