Languishing in a tent in northern Iraq, Nour yearns to return home but can’t because she is accused of supporting jihadists — an allegation she insists has been designed to obscure a land dispute.
The 22-year-old’s family is one of hundreds rights groups fear will remain stuck indefinitely in limbo due to long-standing wrangles being repackaged by neighbours or authorities into accusations they belong to the Islamic State group.
Exacerbating their situation, authorities have since autumn sped up long-stated plans to close displacement camps across Iraq where 200,000 people still live.
Nour’s brother left their hometown near the northern city of Mosul and joined the jihadists in 2014, the year IS seized a third of Iraqi territory in a lightening offensive.
But even before her brother’s departure stoked unwelcome attention, the family had already been locked for years in a dispute with an influential local sheikh.
“He resented us because we owned land that he claimed belonged to him,” said Nour.
“The sheikh tried to discredit our family,” she alleged, nervously stirring sugar into her tea before downing it in one gulp.
“Every time there was a problem in town, it was my father’s or my brother’s fault,” she added.
Rights groups and others — including the International Organization for Migration — are worried about displaced families who stand accused of links to IS, sometimes falsely, and may face violent retribution if sent home.
“We know there are at least hundreds of families and women in particular who cannot return to their areas of origin because of these accusations,” said Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch.
“Most of the time, the accusations are based on rumours, difficult to verify and often linked to tribal problems or problems between families,” she said.
– False claims –
Nour traces the vendetta back to 2007, when the sheikh blamed her father for an explosion that killed one of his relatives during a period of sectarian strife.
After IS recruited her brother years later, the jihadists pressed her father to join them too, but he refused and fighters came to their home and killed him in cold blood, Nour said.
Fearing IS, she fled with her mother and three nephews to the Hasansham camp for internally displaced people, but the sheikh’s accusations have haunted the family.
After Nour’s brother died in fighting in 2017, the family underwent “tabri’a” — a process through which a relative or spouse of an alleged IS fighter renounces their relationship.
A formal document is issued which, in theory, clears the relative of suspicion.
But the sheikh “took all our goods and property”, Nour said. “I tried to return but he’s protected by the Hashed al-Shaabi.”
The Hashed is a state-sponsored armed network that maintained a presence in her home province of Nineveh after helping Iraqi troops recapture it from IS in 2017.
“To be able to return, we have to pay (the sheikh), but we don’t have this money,” said Nour.
– ‘Enemies of the state’ –
Nour’s story can be heard over and over again in Hasansham camp.
An elderly man told AFP his nephew had been falsely accused of being an IS member by a neighbour who had been trying to get access to their land.
In a nearby tent, Sara, another displaced woman who preferred to use a pseudonym to speak freely, lives with her sister who had been married to an IS fighter who died.
Suspected of remaining a jihadist sympathiser, Sara’s sister was imprisoned for more than a year in a detention centre in northern Iraq.
“A man from the Hashed told us he had contacts to get her out of prison. We paid $180,000 to a Hashed member in Baghdad — to no avail,” said Sara.
Her sister sat quietly in a corner of the tent, only her eyes visible from behind her full-face veil.
She was released after the family hired a lawyer, but they are now in debt to creditors and have no income to repay them.
Sara even accused Hashed forces at a nearby checkpoint of taking $500 in cash that the sisters had just been given by a charity.
Her sister’s plight, she said, allowed for an old family dispute to resurface.
“We have problems with our cousins and when they found out about her arrest, they invented testimony about the whole family,” said Sara.
Although they had gone through the tabri’a process, she said, it wasn’t safe to go home.
Wille at Human Rights Watch said Iraqi authorities had failed to establish an effective and fair reconciliation process to allow such families to return home.
“Instead, the Iraqi government preferred a policy of retribution, which generates persecution instead of reintegration,” she told AFP.
“These families are then treated as enemies of the state.”
Old grievances, reborn as IS accusations, tie Iraqis to camps The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ France 24.