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Mosul's Christians face dilemma after Islamic State
By Tony Gamal-Gabriel
Arbil, Iraq (AFP) July 21, 2017

IS families, Mosul displaced live side-by-side in Iraq camp
Al-Jadaa, Irak (AFP) July 20, 2017 - Like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis, Maha lives with her boys at a camp for the displaced near Mosul. But there's a big difference -- her father and husband worked and fought with the Islamic State jihadist group.

"Men go off and do what they want, they never listen to us," said the young woman, a new arrival at the camp in the Al-Jadaa area, south of Mosul, by way of excuse for their actions.

The camp is home to 18,000 people displaced by several months of warfare in and around Mosul between IS and Iraqi security forces backed by the US-led international coalition also fighting the jihadists.

More than 80 families, mostly women and children who had a husband or father among the ranks of IS, have this week been transferred to the Al-Jadaa camp.

Maha's father worked for IS, distributing pensions to the families of dead fighters. He himself died in an air strike on the Maidan district of Mosul's Old City, the last to fall before Baghdad announced victory on July 10.

"When we left (Mosul), they questioned us. They told us they 'want the truth'. We told the truth," she said, without disclosing to AFP the fate of her husband.

Originally from farmlands south of Mosul, her family moved to the city in October to escape the advancing Iraqi forces.

"Nobody has harmed us. We have been well treated," said Maha, her face covered by a scarf that only revealed her eyes and a worried look.

Hamza, five, and four-year-old Khattab were huddled around her legs, clutching her jalabiya robe in its autumnal colours of yellow, orange and red-brown.

- 'We were living the good life' -

Unusually for the many camps for the displaced in northern Iraq, four armed soldiers kept watch near the area where the new arrivals have been resettled.

But the women and children have freedom of movement outside their tents.

Encircled by howling and crying small children in one of the tents, sisters Khawle and Nawal reminisced about the life they were forced to leave behind in Mosul.

"They say they saved us. From who? They are the ones who bombed us. We were left to walk over bodies everywhere," said Nawal.

Khawle broke in with a sigh: "We were living the good life. They treated us well," she said of IS.

Their father, a former bus driver in his 60s, had signed up with the jihadists to work as a mechanic.

Saad Faraman of RNVDO, an Iraqi NGO in charge of running camps in Al-Jadaa, said: "It's our duty to accommodate them, to provide them with aid, just like we do for all the displaced."

The IS-linked families were transferred from a "rehabilitation centre" in Bartalla, close to Mosul, which received at least 170 families before it was closed, according to Human Rights Watch, which last week criticised the existence of that camp.

"Iraqi authorities shouldn't punish entire families because of their relatives' actions," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at New York-based HRW.

"These abusive acts are war crimes and are sabotaging efforts to promote reconciliation in areas retaken" from IS.

Some of the others displaced in Al-Jadaa admit they are somewhat uneasy with the co-habitation.

"Women and children are not a problem. And it was the government that transferred them here," said Mohamed Zeid, a former policeman who became a shepherd after IS swept into the Mosul region in 2014.

"They're in their tents and I'm in mine. We're not together," said Zeid, wearing a white jalabiya and red keffiyeh headdress.

Ahmed Najeh, 40, also chose his words carefully: "I would be lying if I said I feel comfortable. Of course there are some worries."

The jihadists may have been ousted from their Iraqi hometown of Mosul but many Christians like Haitham Behnam refuse to go back and trade in the stability of their new lives.

"There's no security, no protection for Christians back there," said the former resident of the largest city in northern Iraq.

"It's better for us to stay here and keep our mouths shut," said the man in his 40s who resettled in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil in 2014 after the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group seized control of Mosul.

"They came to see us in our shops. They told us: 'We have nothing against you. If we're bothering you, tell us.' A week later, it was 'Christians out!'" recalled Behnam, who used to deal in ready-to-wear clothing.

Under the brutal rule of IS, Mosul's Christian community of around 35,000 was handed an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a special tax imposed on non-Muslims, or risk being executed unless they leave town.

Since the Iraqi authorities on July 10 announced their recapture of Mosul after a battle that raged for several months, tens of thousands of Christians who have rebuilt their lives in the past three years face a dilemma.

"We couldn't go back even if we wanted to," said Behnam, who fondly remembers "a paradise-like life" before Mosul fell under jihadist control.

His polo shirt and trousers are smeared with grease from his new life as a mechanic working in an Arbil suburb, a change he has had to undergo in order to put food on the table for his wife and two children.

- Restarting from scratch -

"There's no security (in Mosul). People were brainwashed over the past three years," said Behnam, a Catholic.

"Even the children have become Daesh, they've been taught to slit throats," he said using a pejorative Arabic name for IS.

A customer at the small workshop that Behnam rents was quick to agree.

"If I was a Christian, I wouldn't go back to Mosul until its residents prove to me that they're ready to accept me," said Omar Fawaz, a Muslim from the east of the city.

Once the battle for Mosul was over, his parents had returned, only to find their home occupied by the victorious security forces.

"Neighbours told us to take the house of a Christian who used to live four doors down," said the 29-year engineer.

"The mentality hasn't changed. The imams in the mosques preach against IS... but the Salafists (radical Muslims) believe Christians have no place there."

Another Christian Maslawi (resident of Mosul), Essam Boutros, a father of four, had to restart from scratch after having abandoned five shops and two houses in the city in 2014.

He had to sell his car to pay the first three months of rent for a shop in Arbil and used his business contacts and reputation to open credit lines with suppliers in neighbouring Turkey.

Now his impressive two-floor store displays counters loaded with perfumes and cosmetics as well as racks of brightly coloured clothes for young girls.

- 'No-one left but me' -

He hasn't even gone back to bombed-out Mosul to see what has become of his properties.

"I want to go back for work. I'm optimistic. But without my families. It's hard to take risks when it comes to family," he said.

One of his shop assistants, Samaher Kiriakos Hanna, fled to Arbil from the small, mainly Christian town of Bartalla, near Mosul.

"We were scared that IS would kill us, that they would take away our daughters. We were terrorised," said the mother of three little girls, the eldest of whom is 13.

"We saw what they did to our Yazidi sisters," who were reduced to the status of sex slaves by IS.

Hanna, an Orthodox Christian, is now busy rebuilding her house, hopeful of returning one day, but she knows it will be a tough call whether to go back.

"We're good here. We can find everything here. There's food, we can rent a house, and I've been working for the past year," said the 37-year-old woman, sporting a ponytail and wearing fashionable trainers.

"If they can guarantee our safety, we will go back," she said, with a note of caution in her voice. "But what about my neighbours, my sister, my brothers. They've all emigrated. There's no-one left but me."

After the battle: Mosul looks to rise from the ashes
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) July 19, 2017
The battle over, it's now time to start rebuilding Iraq's second city, parts of which were literally flattened during the offensive against holed up jihadists of the Islamic State group. But before this can happen, the chaotic mess caused by the conflict that devastated Mosul must be cleared away. Standing outside his damaged house in the west of the city, Manaf Yunes looked on as a work ... read more

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