“We have to kill the IS families”
Iraq declared the end of its war against ISIS in December 2017. However, even though the war may be over, the suffering of Iraqis is far from over. According to a survey carried out by Amnesty International in eight Iraqi camps for internal displaced people, women and children suspected of being related to ISIS are becoming victims of collective punishment and human right violations perpetrated by Iraqi security forces, members of the camp administration and local authorities. Abuses include denied access to food, water and health care; limitation of women’s and children’s mobility due to denied release or renewal of civilian documents like identity cards; severe restriction of their movement’s freedom; verbal harassment, sexual harassment and intimidation; sexual abuse, rape and sexual exploitation.
The difficult situation concerning the so-called “ISIS families” in the aftermath of the conflict against the “caliphate” in Iraq had already been described as a situation of abandonment and rejection. Human Rights Watch highlighted in February that Iraqi families with alleged ISIS ties were denied access to aid, to IDs and were forced to stay into camps. However, more details emerged following the issue of an Amnesty International’s report on Tuesday 17 April and significantly titled “The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq”. The report was the result of a fieldwork carried out by Amnesty International researchers between October 2017 and March 2018 in eight Internal Displaced People (IDP) camps build in Ninewa and Salah al-Din governorates, formerly controlled by ISIS, and it is based on interviews with 92 Iraqi women living in those camps and fled from ISIS controlled areas after January 2017, 30 local and international NGO workers, 11 members of camp administration and 9 UN officials.
According to Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International, “Iraqi women and children with perceived ties to IS are being punished for crimes they did not commit”. Their only fault, indeed, is to be related, or suspected to be related, to men linked to ISIS and that now are dead, imprisoned or disappeared. However, being directly related to an ISIS fighter is not the only criteria that makes women and children stigmatised as “ISIS families”: in addition to kinship ties, even without any relationship by blood, other elements are if the family lived in an area characterised by a strong support for ISIS or is part of a pro-ISIS tribe; if the family fled from ISIS controlled areas only at a late stage in the hostilities; if male members of the family were arrested after having fled from ISIS controlled areas or after having arrived in IDP camps.
Zahra, 33-year-old mother of six, outside a tent used for cooking inside in Salamiya IDP camp. Source: Amnesty International
The survey highlights that abuses have been perpetrated especially by those who were supposed to protect displaced people living in camps. For instance, women and children with perceived ties to ISIS are denied access to essential services by camp administration’s workers employed in national and international NGOs. Furthermore, women were prevented from access to aids also because of verbal harassment perpetrated by armed actors present in distribution sites. According to some humanitarian workers, the main reason why this kind of discrimination is made in aid distribution sites does not lie in the camps’ administration itself but in the influence that armed actors can exert on the camps’ management.
Iraqi security forces, instead, are charged of limiting the freedom of movement of women and children with ISIS ties by preventing them from acceding to the release or renewal of civilian documents. For the families living in the camp of Al-Shahama, for instance, the camp has become a de facto detention centre, a sort of punishment for their alleged ties to ISIS. Furthermore, the lack of documents as identity cards and birth certificates not only prohibits women and children from moving freely, increasing their isolation. It also prevents them from finding a decent job or enrolling children in schools. According to NGO workers and lawyers dealing with civil documentation cases, Iraqi security forces deny or delay indefinitely the release of documents to members of families whose relative appear on their “wanted list”.
Sexual abuse, rape and sexual exploitation are the most serious allegation contained in the report. While all women from female-headed household living in IDP camps are at significant risk of sexual abuse, women with alleged ties to ISIS are more likely to be raped and sexually exploited since isolated from their community and considered to deserve punishment. According to Amnesty’s report, “the primary perpetrators of these violations are armed actors working in and nearby the camps, such as security guards, military and militia personnel, who use their positions of authority to take advantage of these women’s poverty and isolation”. Together with members of the camp administration and camp residents, “they pressure women into sexual relationships by promising cash, humanitarian aid or preference in aid distributions, protection from other armed actors or men in the camp, the release of family members from detention or permission to leave the camp without undergoing the usual procedures”. In this regard, Lynn Maalouf called on the Iraqi government to show its commitment to protecting women by “holding all perpetrators to account and stopping all armed men from entering” the IDP camps.
Attempts to denounce sexual abuse and harassment have been followed by a further stigmatisation of the “ISIS widows”, that may be blamed for the treatment that they received and penalised by camp authorities. Even outside the camp, when ISIS families are allowed to return home by camp authorities, they have to face the refusal of tribal elders to accept them back in their home towns and villages. Many of those who managed to go back home have experienced eviction, forced displacement, looting, sexual abuse and harassment and having their electricity, water and other services cut off. Sometimes, they found their houses marked by the word “Daeshi” (in Arabic: ISIS member): “They came to the house and wrote ‘Daeshi’ on it. We kept cleaning it, but they returned three times in one week and wrote the same word. A neighbour said to us: ‘We have to kill the IS families – you are a disease in the community’”.
The situation of ISIS families is expected to become worse, as well as the condition of all the Iraqis living in IDP camps. International aids, indeed, are going to decrease in the future and internal displaced people are being forced to leave the camps. For ISIS families, this means to return home and to face all the risks outlined above. Their isolation and exploitation, therefore, is very likely to increase as opposed to the international effort to address the mistreatment of these women and children. If underestimated, the lack of commitment by the central government to address these injustices may sow the seeds for another round of violence. As put by an Iraqi woman interviewed by Amnesty, “we are rejected by everyone… As mothers, we can bear this treatment, but what about our children? This treatment will create a new IS”. There is no better time than now nor a better place than IDP camps to address mechanisms of marginalisation and exclusion that have been at the origins of most of the violence that has torn Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. Wars get to an end at some point. However, history teaches that their social legacies are very hard to eradicate if they are not addressed as a priority in the conflict aftermath.