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Displaced Iraqi women from Tal Afar make bread in Salamya camp, east of Mosul, Iraq on Aug. 6, 2017. Photo by Khalid Al-Mo...

Iraqi women and children with perceived link to ISIS are sexually abused, denied aid, report finds

Iraqi women and children with perceived ties to Islamic State militants are denied access to food and health care, sexually abused, and routinely blocked from obtaining identity cards and other documents needed to work or move freely, according to an Amnesty International report released earlier this month.

The April 17 report highlights cases of widespread discrimination against women living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps by local authorities, camp administrators and security forces. Families with suspected links to ISIS are being held against their will in at least one de-facto detention camp in the country, according to the report.

“This leads to a deep sense of injustice,” said Nicolette Waldman, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Amnesty International.

“They (the women interviewed) kept saying, ‘Look we know that we don’t want to go back into another cycle of violence, but what about our children, how can we tell them not to be angry when this is the treatment we’ve gotten?’” she said.

In all, 92 women in eight IDP camps were interviewed from October 2017 to March 2018 for the report. Local and international NGO workers, camp administrators and U.N. officials also were interviewed. More than 3 million people are internally displaced in Iraq.

Treatment and abuse in the camps

Female-led households with perceived ties to ISIS in Iraq have been denied access to health care, food and non-food items, by camp administrators, international or national humanitarian organizations or other individuals distributing aid, Amnesty International said. Although international aid groups do provide resources in IDP camps, they do not monitor the distribution of aid, Waldman said.

Women also were routinely subjected to sexual harassment and sexual abuse by camp administrators, security forces and other armed men, such as members of militias. Women told Amnesty International that some sexual relationship were arranged by camp administration or other armed people, who would arrange introductions or pressure women to enter sexual relationships with men.

Women with perceived ISIS ties said that they or their families had survived attempts by camp authorities or other camp residents to rape them.

“Dana” (not her real name) told Amnesty International:

“Just yesterday, [two camp residents] came to the tent, and they tried to come in. They said I had to have sex with them. I refused. I didn’t know them, and I didn’t have any idea who they were. … I just want a door to lock and walls around me at night. I am so scared every night. I am OK during the day, but each night I say to myself, ‘Tonight is the night I’m going to die.’”

Families perceived to be connected to ISIS also are restricted in their movement, routinely blocked from obtaining new identity cards and other civil documents that would allow them to cross through checkpoints to leave the camp or work freely. Without proper civil documents, children also are unable to obtain birth certificates or register in schools.

When ISIS-linked families do attempt to return to their homes, they receive threats from their neighbors or tribal and local authorities. In several areas, local and tribal authorities have issues orders blocking the return of families they perceive are connected with ISIS. As a result, many families have returned to IDP camps.

Amnesty International sent a memo with its findings to the Iraqi government on April 3 but has not received a response, Waldman said. The government of Iraq has largely been silent on how families perceived to be connected to ISIS are treated, she said. “We haven’t yet seen a clear message that these types of violations against families perceived against ISIS should not be carried out; a public declaration that this shouldn’t be happening.”

Waldman said the Iraqi government could prevent armed people from entering the camps in the first place, which would reduce many of the violations. “Every violation is intertwined. … It’s a spider’s web of discrimination from every side,” she said.

Rise and fall of ISIS

ISIS declared the establishment of its caliphate in late-June 2014, making “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organization … null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” according to an ISIS spokesman.

Experts link the emergence of the group to numerous factors, including “de-baathification” policies following the U.S. invasion, which removed many Sunni Arabs from the political process; the dissolution of the Iraqi military; the targeting of Sunni community members; and al-Qaeda and subsequently ISIS’ exploitation of Sunni-Shiite sectarian enmity.

By mid-2014, ISIS controlled one-third of Iraq. The Iraqi effort to push out the Islamic State was backed by a U.S. (and allied) air campaign, which began in August 2014 when U.S. forces struck areas in northern Iraq. Over the next year, ISIS would lose major territory in Iraq. In June 2016, Iraqi forces captured Fallujah after two and a half years of fighting.

Special correspondent Jane Arraf reports on the condition of Fallujah post-ISIS.

In October 2016, 30,000 Iraqi forces backed by a U.S. air campaign launched an operation to re-take Mosul. Three months later, they captured the eastern part of the city. In west Mosul, Iraqi and coalition forces launched a series of “disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks,” including a March 2017 U.S. airstrike targeting two Islamic State snipers in Iraq which killed 105 civilians, the report said.

Many of the women interviewed described struggling with deteriorating mental health as a result of the fighting in Mosul. One American military commander said the pitched, street-by-street fighting was the most intense combat since World War II.

“Hanan,” a 46-year-old woman, told Amnesty International:

“We were sheltering in the Old City [in west Mosul]. For four or five nights, there were constant air strikes. I didn’t know where to go. If I stayed on the IS side, they might have shot me, and the same for the Iraqi side. There was an airstrike on our house on 4 July [2017]. The strike killed my sister in-law, and my son lost his arm. My older daughter lost one of her eyes, and her hand is now badly damaged. … On 8 July, a mortar hit, and my other son died along with two others. … I had to go to the hospital in al-Jamhouri neighborhood, because I was injured. … I left my son behind – I didn’t bury him, we just had to keep moving.”

After years of fighting, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Dec. 10, 2017 a national holiday after Iraqi forces pushed Islamic State fighters out of Mosul, their last major stronghold in Iraq.

The report focused on women and children with alleged ties to ISIS, who fled territory controlled by the militants after January 2017. Several factors determined how security forces perceived which families they considered connected to the Islamic State, including if the family had a relative (however distant) who was a member of the group, or if the relative worked in a non-combat role, such as a cook or driver.

“It’s a widespread problem, and it’s a problem for the future of Iraq,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute and author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”

Other factors taken into consideration: if the family lived in an ISIS-controlled area, belonged to a tribe with a majority of its members supporting ISIS, or if a family member was arrested as they fled ISIS territory.

Many female heads of household described to Amnesty International their search for their husbands or sons who were arrested or disappeared as they fled ISIS-controlled areas. Amnesty International estimated that several thousand men and boys have been “forcibly disappeared” in Iraq, based on their interviews with interlocutors across the country.

Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports on the families of men and boys, who are routinely taken by authorities to investigate possible ties with ISIS.

What’s next?

International organizations’ diminished role in managing IDP camps will mean that militias or other armed groups will have an even more prominent role in the camps, according to the report. Amnesty International said it expects sexual abuse will become more rampant as well.

The treatment of camp residents could lead to another cycle of violence, some experts said. “The blowback will be huge in the future. This could take years, but when these children grow up they’re not going to get it. … They’re creating monsters on an industrial scale,” Hassan said.

Analysts also are concerned ISIS could re-emerge in a stronger and more deadly form. Hassan said the group will continue to operate underground in Iraq and Syria, focusing on insurgency tactics, suicide attacks, and targeting notable people in militias and army ranks for assassination attempts.

“They can still be deadly, even though they’re not able to have a sanctuary in the same way,” Hassan said.

In the next year, international funding for Iraq will sharply decrease and will only be allocated to “priority areas,” according to the U.N. report, Iraq’s 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan. With a decrease in funding to IDP camps, displaced people are already being strongly encouraged to leave the camps, and the Iraqi government’s priority will be closure of the camps, according to the Amnesty International report.

“All they want is some sort of chance for education and livelihood, they just want to work for [themselves], they want a system change where women are not scapegoated for crimes they didn’t commit,” Waldman said.