They hold white sheets of paper in their hands, folded or crumpled, almost as if to hide its contents. The paper is blotted with with black and red spots, a few green lines with the tentative shape of a flower. And nothing else. We’re at the Internal Displaced People camp (IDP) of Al-Shuhada, in Amaryat Al Fallujah, some 70 km. west of Baghdad, home to 3200 families, mostly from the Governorate of Anbar. They found shelter in these tents and shacks during the war against the Islamic State (IS) headed by al Baghdadi that on June 29, 2014 seized Mosul and announced the establishment of the Caliphate. The occupation lasted two years, with Falluja – designated the Iraqi capital of Isis – Sinjar and Tikrit controlled by black-flag Jihadists. The scars of those years are detailed in those sheets of paper, and they are told by the same women in the camp. What once was a shelter resembles a prison today. The echoes of a possible visit by the Pope in Iraq in 2020 have not reached the camp.
“We were left with nothing, our houses were wiped out, our property was looted. Many of our men died during the war”
cry out two elderly woman addressing a delegation from Caritas Iraq visiting the camp with representatives of Caritas Internationalis, European Caritas (Italy, Belgium, Spain and Germany) and CRS (Catholic Relief Services, USA). There is an air of upheaval inside the camp, the displaced population is protesting because, the women say, “the Iraqi army controlling the camp has lowered the power supply. On top of this, we don’t have enough medicines to treat our patients and we are not allowed to go out.”
The living conditions of the internally displaced – many of them children and youths – are under everyone’s eyes. In these hot summer days, temperatures rise up to 43-44 degrees Celsius and it becomes impossible to stay in the tents or the shacks. Mustafà showed us his tent, “a few square metres for 11 of us, two families.” A gush of poorly-cooled air comes out of a rusty air conditioner. An adjacent tent is being used as kitchen and dining room. Some pots have been placed on an electric hotplate. There are no chairs or tables.
It’s the same condition shared by all those in the camp. Many tents are empty. A great number of people have left to return to their homes, or to what remains of them, after the expulsion of Isis. Wind, sun, rain and dereliction have made them unusable. They stand as a reminder – as in a freeze-frame – of a time that no one ever wants to live again.
An oasis in the desert. At the Al-Shuhada camp today’s wounds add on to previous ones. And so do the traumas. To alleviate the suffering of the camp’s residents, Caritas Iraq – with the support of Caritas Germany and the German government – has set up an educational and healthcare centre. A veritable oasis in the desert of the camp. Under a gazebo surrounded by plants and flowers, with a musical background, groups of young people are studying English with a volunteer worker, children play, draw and colour. A rainbow takes shape on a sheet of paper, a clear sign of a longing for peace that amongst these tents means “leaving the camp to go back to a normal life in our village.”
Today is a special day. The arrival of the Caritas delegation coincides with the inauguration of an artificial grass football field. The bright green carpet stands out among the sandy areas of the camp. For the occasion, a mini-match was also organized, including an award ceremony and brand new jerseys. In a nearby prefabricated building, a psychological support session is underway as part of a Caritas Iraq program for traumatised women. “Many of the women here suffered severe traumas during the war. Our program is designed to help them resume more or less ‘normal’ lives”, said the Director of Caritas Iraq Caritas Iraq, Nabil Nissan.
Amal’s sheet of paper. Amal is one of them. The white sheet of paper, where the psychologist helped her jot down the story of her life, is covered with black and red blotches. Shades of pale pink and purple refer to her childhood memories. “Daesh (Islamic State)– she said through her tears – stripped me of my life. I no longer have a home, a land, my husband died during the war. I have a 12-year-old son who is seriously ill and in urgent need of surgery. But the operation would cost me ten thousand dollars, which I don’t have. I spend my days assisting him.
At night I cannot sleep as I am constantly beside him to check that he is still breathing. I’m afraid he could die.”
While she speaks she points at the largest blotch on the sheet of paper.
The other women are silently listening. They hold on to their sheets, fold them, nervously crumpling them up. Ultimately, their stories are the same as those of Amal. A psychologist comes over and says:
“Amal has completed her psychological support course but nevertheless she attends every meeting. Being close to other women is all she has, and she holds on to it.”
Hamad’s nightmare. In the meantime, the referee’s blows full-time triggering the yellow-jersey players’ exultation as they raise the winner’s cup. Hamad, 15, displaced from the area of Al Qa’im, on the Syrian border, leaning against he mesh with a group of friends, joins in their enthusiasm. He didn’t participate in the match but he appears to have been enjoying himself all the same.
He wants to talk to us but his story grows into a sad protestation: “I have been displaced here at the Al-Shuhada camp for the past two years. I left Al Qa’im when Daesh took over.
In my village I’ve seen people killed for no reason by jihadists. They killed all those who had relatives in the army or who worked for the State, they slit their throats in front of us, including our friends, and we didn’t know why.”
Sad memories resurface: “The Islamic State shut down all schools except for Koranic schools whose students were indoctrinated. These Madrasas were especially for ISIS youths. So we spent our days at home, it was too dangerous to go out – Hamad recalls -. People risked being questioned and accused of not taking part in the prayers. For this reason some people were killed or arrested. Others were deported – maybe to Syria – and we have heard nothing of them since. Daesh also banned people from using the Internet: there were some Internet points open. But if people were caught logging on websites that failed to comply with Daesh rules they were arrested by militiamen. The latter included Iraqis, Syrians as well as Pakistanis, Indians, Afghanis, Uzbeks and Chinese militants. Although they were foreigners who didn’t speak Arabic they were ready to kill for no reason. We will never forget what we have seen.” These memories “are nightmares when we fall asleep. Fortunately we have psychological counselling here in the camp.” “You want to know my dream?”
Hamad answers without a second thought, time enough to extend a glance to his friends, almost as if to seek some support: “my dream – in fact
our dream – is to return to the village and complete our studies.
To live in harmony and peace. We had to interrupt our studies because of the war. Here we are studying and we hope to make up for the lost time. We believe in peace if it means going back home. Unfortunately
We don’t know if our homeland shall ever return to its former glory.”
Some youths are watering the plants in a small orchard beside the football field. They are trying to absorb soil from the surrounding desert. It’s another way to cultivate hope in Al-Shuhada’s IDP camp.