I am currently in Iraq exploring the region in and around Mosul, assessing the current state of the city following Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s declaration on July 9 that ISIS had been driven from Mosul. Last Thursday I interviewed a number of Mosul residents living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) outside of Erbil to get their views. What I discovered was a curious combination of hope, numbness and fear for the future. If the Iraqi government isn’t careful, the end of the war against ISIS in Mosul may simply herald a transition to the next phase of conflict.
Just outside of the Kurdish city of Erbil sits Camp Baharka, set up by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to host IDPs from Mosul and environs. I met with camp manager Meva S. Akrey who shared a bit of the camp’s history and stories from current residents. The camp was established in 2014 as a temporary measure, but has since been upgraded to serve as a long term facility. Currently there are roughly 12,000 people living in the camp, with a total of 250,000 IDPs living throughout the KRG region.
The camp is filled with a combination of Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and other smaller religious subgroups. There has been no problem at the camp with the sectarian conflict or violence that has afflicted other parts of Iraq. Akrey said they have a formal training program that all new families must complete as soon as they arrive. “We emphasize how everyone has to live together, in tolerance. Life here is not about the political or religious issues of the past,” he continued, “but about how they’re going to live in the present and future.” For two years it has worked in the camp. Whether that tolerance remains in effect once IDPs return to their homes, however, remains to be seen.
Akrey said the camp’s population was generally relieved that ISIS has been cleared from the city, but are discouraged by destruction wrought on the city and realization that most won’t be returning to home any time soon.
Interestingly, for the most part, the people don’t blame anyone for their fate. It simply “is.” Whole sections of Mosul have been utterly destroyed in the process of freeing it from ISIS control. The destruction was caused by ISIS, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as they cleared the city section by section, and coalition air attacks, artillery bombardment and drone strikes. Many have become numb and say it doesn’t matter who was responsible: they just want to rebuild and have a chance for a normal life. They do, however, have concerns about what comes next.
Some of the displaced people at Camp Baharka don’t want to go back right away because they want to find out how Mosul is going to be administered first. “Many are afraid there will be a civil war,” Akrey admitted. “They are afraid that if Baghdad comes back in and rules like it did before (the perception of being unfair to the Sunnis, primarily), the people may fight against each other.” There is also the concern about conflicts that might arise between families who fled immediately and those who remained behind.
One elderly camp resident (who wouldn’t give her name because she was still afraid that ISIS might find her) told me there was a commonly held belief that those who didn’t like ISIS left right away, while those that stayed behind did so because they supported ISIS. “I was able to leave,” she explained. “They could have left as well. Why do you think they stayed behind?” A man who lived several blocks over, however, had a different view.
“Many people who escaped had money or cars or knew people outside who could help them. But many did not,” he explained. “Why accuse them of helping ISIS just because they weren’t able to leave?” These diverging views expose some of the dangers looming for post-ISIS Mosul—even aside from how the city is governed.
“Many of the people in this camp who fled Mosul say they know who supported ISIS and who didn’t” in the areas where they lived, Akrey explained. “When they get back I am afraid many will carry out revenge attacks” against their neighbors in vigilante, extrajudicial ways. Shia firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he has similar fears.
“I’m afraid the defeat of Daesh [ISIS] is only the start of a new phase. I am very proud of Iraq’s diversity but my fear is that we may see a genocide of some ethnic or sectarian groups,” he told the Guardian during an interview at his home in Najaf. How Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government chooses to rule Mosul in the coming weeks and months will go a long way towards determining whether such genocides occur or not.
Hossam al-Ayyar, a member of the Ninevah Provincial Council (which includes Mosul), said the reconstruction and governance plan “includes cultural and religious programs adopted by mosques, schools and churches to consolidate the values of coexistence and moderation, promote shared living and the culture of peace and freedom of belief and the respect of the rights of others.” If he is true to his word, it will be at least possible for Mosul to return to relative stability.
Many Sunni leaders, I am told, remain unconvinced by such talk and want to see concrete actions taken. Perhaps the mood of Mosul’s residents was best captured by thirty-five-year-old Nadia Ali Asher, whom I interviewed on last Thursday in Camp Baharka.
When ISIS rolled into Mosul in 2014, she immediately fled with her four young children. She became separated from her husband during the chaos and to this day still doesn’t know what became of him. I asked her what she hoped for the future for her children.
The sudden change in her demeanor as she answered struck me. Her face conveyed an odd mixture of discouragement, anger and desperation. It was clear she desperately wanted to believe in a positive future for her children, but could only say “we don’t really have any hope. We just want a chance to live a normal life.” For her sake and the hundreds of thousands of others who will later return to Mosul, I hope al-Ayyar is true to his word.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.