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Displaced Iraqis long for home, but return risky

Bombs left by jihadists to blame

HASAN SHAM, Iraq: This file photo taken on December 16, 2016 shows displaced Iraqi women and children from the embattled city of Mosul arriving at the Sewdinan camp for internally displaced persons. —AFP

HASSAN SHAM CAMP, Iraq: Iraqi civilians displaced by the battle to recapture Mosul long to return home but bombs left by jihadists and ongoing fighting makes going back now a dangerous proposition.

More than 100,000 Iraqis have fled their homes since the massive operation to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group was launched on October 17, and the battle is far from over.

Hisham, in his 20s, cannot stand life in the Hassan Sham camp anymore. “I am not asking anything from anyone, just let me leave this camp and go home,” Hisham says.

He waves his arms, brandishing his identity card proving he is from a village that was recently retaken from IS. “I was searched, my identity was checked and then I was recorded.  Now my name is on the list of displaced and I cannot move,” he says, adding that he had tried to leave the camp several times but was prevented from doing so.

Nearby, a teenager shivering in the cold is angered that he cannot return to his nearby house, rather than have to live squeezed into a tent in the camp alongside his father, mother and four siblings. “Our house is in the village of Hassan Sham and we are in the camp of Hassan Sham,” says the teenager, who declined to give his name.

Risking lives to return   
“At least we would have a real roof. Here, there is hardly anything to eat,” while outside, his father could have found work to support the family.

From inside the fences surrounding camps for displaced people in northern Iraq, life outside may seem much better. But waiting to make sure of stability and that bombs have been removed is the safer course. “Often we see places being announced retaken and safe for return very quickly,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla of the Norwegian Refuge Council aid group.
But in reality, people may be “risking their lives to return home, because it’s not safe or secure,” Abdulla said. “Before people return, they need to have all the information necessary to make an informed decision,” she said, noting that there may not be “enough aid, not enough service infrastructure (and) they feel forced to leave.”

In and around the city of Mosul, things are far from safe or secure. Iraqi soldiers and police say IS jihadists rigged many everyday household items with explosives before they left, such as a phone, a copy of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and even a teddy bear.

Possible target for jihadists   
And while fighting is still ongoing, civilians are not always welcome because the security forces fear that jihadists may seek to use them or infiltrate them. Even after an area is retaken and secured, it may not be fit for habitation: infrastructure may be damaged, businesses shuttered, and people left reliant on humanitarian aid.

Aid organizations say they are hesitant to distribute relief supplies in some areas lest a crowd of civilians become a target for IS. “The majority of internally displaced persons seem keen to return home, motivated by a desire to return to normality and the need to control and safeguard their property,” said Jenny sparks of the International Organization for Migration.
But “the scale and speed of returns can pose a particular challenge, especially to communities already made politically and economically fragile as a result of the recent occupation by IS and military operations,” Sparks said.

Abdulla noted that in Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad that was recaptured from IS nearly six months ago, only around 10 percent of homes are fit for habitation. “For a sustainable solution and stabilization effort, we’re looking at years, and a lot more funding,” she said.-AFP

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