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Iraq: Families of alleged Islamic State fighters fear for fate of loved ones

Displaced families in Iraq desperately search for information about their relatives who have been arrested for affiliation with the Islamic State (IS)

Iraqi families, displaced from their village of Tal Um Jadaan, southwest of Mosul, arrive in an area near Qayyarah on 26 November 2016 (AFP)

QAYYARAH, Iraq – Wafa Abdullah (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) hasn’t heard from her 15-year-old son since he was detained by Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint as they were fleeing Mosul in early February.

“They [the Iraqi soldiers] said they had information that he had joined the Islamic State and they took him to Baghdad. But we don’t know if he’s in jail or what,” she said.

According to Wafa, the Iraqi army has repeatedly refused to provide any information about her son, despite many requests.

“I tried to explain to them many times, my son never killed anyone, he just joined [IS] for a short time,” she said in tears. “I will keep trying. I just want to see him one more time. I miss him so much.”

‘I just want to see him one more time. I miss him so much’ - Wafa Abdullah, mother whose son was detained by Iraqi soldiers

As the military operation to liberate western Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) gains momentum, human rights groups are concerned about the lack of transparency on the status of men detained on suspicion of being involved with IS.

Families in Jed’ah camp, housing internally displaced Iraqis, located on the outskirts of the town of Qayyarah, said that they have no information about their recently arrested husbands and children.

Wafa explained how her son was influenced by IS at a mosque in Mosul, where IS leaders were preaching in an effort to recruit young people, after they seized control of the city in 2014.

“When IS came to Mosul, many people were going to the mosque, but they chose young people,” she said. “Young people’s minds are clear, like a blank paper. When you tell them something they’re going to believe it.”

Wafa said that her son became a member of IS for only two weeks, but he left the group after being forced to learn how to use weapons.

“My son is a child,” she says. “He was vulnerable and didn’t understand what he was doing. When you tell young people something, they will follow you.”

The disappearance of people suspected of having ties to IS has raised concerns about the treatment of detainees, arrested by the Iraqi forces and the militias backing them.

Amnesty International's annual report for 2016/2017 stated that all males considered to be of fighting age (roughly 15 to 65) fleeing territories controlled by IS underwent security screenings at makeshift detention facilities, where they were held for days or months in often dire conditions.

The report added that those suspected of terrorism were transferred into the custody of security agencies such as the general intelligence branch of the ministry of the interior, where they were at risk of torture and frequently denied contact with their families and lawyers.

According to another report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this month, militias fighting with Iraqi forces such as Hashd al-Shaabi, made up mostly of Shia fighters, are screening and detaining men fleeing Mosul in unidentified detention centers, where they are denied contact with the outside world. 

Hashd al-Sha'abi Shia fighters advance from an area near Qayyarah towards the village of Tal Um Jadaan, southwest of Mosul, on 26 November 2016 (AFP)
These militias have not been given official mandate or the required training to carry out screenings, according to HRW, which puts them at greater risk of abuse and enforced disappearance. 

Asia, a mother of two in her early twenties in Jed’ah camp, said that her husband was arrested 50 days ago when Iraqi soldiers and Hashd al-Shaabi fighters came to their house in a village near Qayyarah.

“They told me not to say anything or tell anyone. They didn’t ask him any questions, just his name and they took him,” she said.

Asia fled to the camp with her children, after her husband was detained.

She explained that her husband used to work as a carpenter, but joined IS for financial reasons for one month.

“There was no money at home, my kids were hungry, so he joined because he was promised that he would make some money,” she said. “We had nothing at home, only bread and water, so my husband was desperate.”

‘We had nothing at home, only bread and water, so my husband was desperate’ – Asia, wife and mother, whose husband was detained by Iraqi soldiers and Hashd al-Shaabi fighters 

Asia said that her husband left IS after one month and was put in an IS jail for a week as punishment for leaving. He was also issued a special ID by IS marking him as a traitor to the group.

She has had no contact with her husband since his arrest and doesn’t know where he is being detained.

A displaced Iraqi woman and her child arrive in an area near Qayyarah on 26 November 2016 (AFP)
Abeer, a 43-year-old mother of seven, is searching for information about her husband’s whereabouts. He was taken from their tent in Jed’ah camp on 11 February for suspected involvement with IS.

Abeer said she believes the men who arrested her husband were members of the Hashd al-Ashari, an Iraqi government-backed militia, which has been accused of detaining and beating men suspected of connections with IS, according to a Human Rights Watch report published in November 2016.

The group is also accused of recruiting children from refugee camps to take part in the fight against IS. 

Iraqi children, displaced with their family from their village of Tal Um Jadaan, southwest of Mosul, arrive in an area near Qayyarah on 26 November 2016 (AFP)
“They came to Hammam al-Ali [south of Mosul] and killed a lot of people,” Abeer said. “Hashd al-Ashari are very bad. They hurt and kill people.”

With her seven children sitting around her inside the crowded tent, Abeer wept as she spoke of her husband’s arrest, expressing concern over his poor health.

“My husband is sick,” she explained. “He has epilepsy. If they hit him I’m sure he will die.”

Although she denies her husband was a member of the IS, she said that he was coerced into helping protect and maintain a building that was used by the fighters, located next to a shop her husband owned in the town of Hammam al-Ali.

“When Daesh [IS] took my husband inside the building, they threatened him saying that he can either join them and help them or they will kill him and his family,” said Abeer.

‘He can either join them and help them or they will kill him and his family’ – Abeer, whose husband was detained by members of the Hashd al-Ashari

He refused to join the group but agreed to be responsible for the building on their behalf, she explained.

She has not been given any information about her husband’s whereabouts, ever since his arrest.

She hopes his case is that of mistaken identity and that he will soon be released.

While there is no question that IS fighters must be held accountable and brought to justice in fair trials, the screenings and arbitrary detentions carried out by government-backed groups has left many families suffering from constant worry and grief.

“All detainees must be treated humanely and must be protected from torture and other ill-treatment," said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office in a report published in November 2016. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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