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Iraqi Refugees Visit Homes they Fled 2 Years ago when Islamic State (IS) Militants stormed Villages in Iraq

As families drove in with their permission slips, the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces both announced gains in the battle with IS

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Homeowners from villages where Islamic State fighters have been driven out in recent days return to visit and gather any of their possessions that remain, despite the danger of hidden bombs in the villages, in Iraq's Kazir province, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA

“Of course we are afraid there are bombs planted in our homes,” said Badirkhan Moussa, one of the Iraqi refugees, who fled his home on foot two years ago when Islamic State militants stormed his village. “But we won’t be happy again until we go home, and go inside.”

In a dirt parking lot between a fallen bridge blown up by IS a year ago and a Peshmerga military checkpoint, Moussa and his neighbours waited for two hours to get permission to travel into the war zone surrounding Mosul to visit their homes after IS fighters were driven out in recent days.

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One man holds up a paper issued to him by peshmerga forces, allowing him to enter into the area, still generally off limits to civilians, in Kazir province of Kurdistan in Iraq, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA
One man holds up a paper issued to him by peshmerga forces, allowing him to enter into the area, still generally off limits to civilians, in Kazir province of Kurdistan in Iraq, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA

As families drove in with their permission slips, the Iraqi and Peshmerga forces both announced gains in the battle with IS. The army said it was advancing in Bakhdida, about 20 kilometers from Mosul, and Qayyara, nearly 75 kilometres to the south. Peshmerga forces tweeted that they were beginning a “major advance from three fronts.”

But IS militants were continuing to wreak havoc in Iraq, as fighting in Kirkuk continued for a second day and nearly 1,000 people reportedly were treated for inhaling toxic fumes near Mosul. The U.S. military said IS fighters set a sulfur plant on fire as they fled.

Stream of visitors

With several villages cleared of IS fighters, a steady stream of people were visiting their homes and streets despite the fear — and expectation — that IS left explosive booby traps in their wake.

“Of course we are nervous,” said Ali Mohammad, an off-duty soldier with the Iraqi army. “But we are all going at our own risk.” Hours before, mortar fire had hit a nearby formerly IS-controlled village.

The peshmerga army is granting permission to travel into military zones, but not guaranteeing security to residents visiting villages directly behind their fighting line. Mohammad said he was going to his home, but that they would all return before nightfall, taking with them anything that was left.

In villages like this one, besides being looted and booby-trapped, many homes and businesses, like this former bank of shops, have been destroyed, in Kazir province of Kurdistan in Iraq, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA
In villages like this one, besides being looted and booby-trapped, many homes and businesses, like this former bank of shops, have been destroyed, in Kazir province of Kurdistan in Iraq, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA

But a few hours later, Mohammad said there was nothing to take. All the valuables were gone and many homes had been bombed out.

“There were three or four blankets and a water container left in my house,” he said. “The whole village is like this.”

Despite the destruction, added neighbor Abbass, a day laborer, it was a relief to finally see their homes. “It’s been 2½ years,” he said. “We miss our village.”

The Mosul offensive. VOA
The Mosul offensive. VOA

Chaos

The relative calm in the area surrounding the front lines of the battle toward Mosul may be short lived, said Azat Umar Moloud, the manager of Hajj Idrees Seudin Surchi, a local aid organization. And the calm is merely relative, as an explosion interrupted him.

At an unoccupied camp about 30 kilometers outside Mosul, Moloud said the thousands of already dusty tents set up were expected to fill quickly as military forces moved toward the city.

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“This camp will not be enough for the refugees,” he said. “But we are trying our best to help them.”

Locals say that despite the dangers and the fact that they are finding little left of use, they feel the need to see their homes again, in Kazir province of Kurdistan in Iraq, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA
Locals say that despite the dangers and the fact that they are finding little left of use, they feel the need to see their homes again, in Kazir province of Kurdistan in Iraq, Oct. 22, 2016. VOA

Roughly a million people are expected to flee their homes if or when Iraqi and Peshmerga forces fight their way into Mosul. Aid organizations were scrambling to erect 12,000 tents in the desert surrounding the war zone.

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In a village near one of the camps, a few soldiers occupied a mosque, using it as a station to fix mechanical parts for peshmerga vehicles. Soldiers warned that other homes in the village, abandoned when IS took over the area, were still not safe to enter despite having been under security forces’ control since last year.

“A homeowner came by,” one soldier joked, sadly, “and asked if they could charge us rent.” (VOA)

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Islamic State War Crimes in Iraq being Investigated: UN Team

The United Nations Security Council has voted unanimously to establish an investigative team to help Iraq secure evidence of atrocities committed by Islamic State militants "that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide

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Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk toward the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate (voa)

Iraq, September 22, 2017: The United Nations Security Council has voted unanimously to establish an investigative team to help Iraq secure evidence of atrocities committed by Islamic State militants “that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

Britain, which drafted the resolution, said the team would bring some justice to those who had experienced atrocities at the hands of IS, variously known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, called the resolution “a landmark” that would “provide an indispensable record of the scope and scale” of IS atrocities.

“This means justice for those people who have been victimized by ISIS,” Nadia Murad, a former IS captive in Iraq, said in a Facebook Live video after attending the council vote with well-known international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

ISLAMIC STATE
Yazidi survivor and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human trafficking Nadia Murad, center, visits her village for the first time after being captured and sold as a slave by the Islamic State three years ago, in Kojo, Iraq, (VOA)

Clooney represents women of Iraq’s Yazidi minority who were kidnapped and held as sex slaves by IS militants after the terrorist organization conquered large swaths of Iraq in mid-2014.

“It’s a huge milestone for all of those who’ve been fighting for justice for victims of crimes committed by ISIS,” Clooney said in the Facebook Live video. “It says to victims that their voices will be heard and they may finally get their day in court.”

Since then, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have driven IS from most of the land it had seized in Iraq, retaking all the major urban areas, although the group still controls some pockets in Iraq as well as territory in Syria.

ALSO READ UN Human Rights Chief Urges Iraqi Government to help Victims of Islamic State (ISIS) Sex Abuse

IS fighters have been on the run in Iraq since U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recaptured Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the Islamic State’s former stronghold capital, in July.

Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled the August 2014 massacre in Sinjar, and U.N. rights investigations have documented horrific accounts of abuse suffered by women and girls, such as Murad. About 3,000 women are believed to remain in IS captivity.

But Human Rights Watch criticized the resolution as a missed opportunity by the council “to address war crimes and rights abuses by all sides to the conflict in Iraq.”

“No one denies the importance of tackling the widespread atrocities by ISIS in Iraq, but ignoring abuses by Iraqi and international forces is not only flawed, it’s shortsighted,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The pursuit of justice is essential to all victims who saw their loved ones tortured and killed, or houses burned and bombed, regardless of who is responsible.” (VOA)

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Ground Report: How ISIS is ruining lives of people in Syria and Iraq

For the families in Sarran, the fear of ISIS has now been replaced by the wreckage of a displaced economy left behind by the terrorists.

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End of Islamic State rule in Saran
In Sarran, no lives were completely untouched by tragedy at the hands of IS militants Sarran, Syria, Aug. 18, 2017. (H. Murdock/VOA)
  • IS rule in the city of Sarran ended eight months ago 
  • The IS did not murder or behead residents in Sarran, but no lives were completely untouched by tragedy
  • Displaced families from Raqqa currently survive in refugee camps in the area that run short of basic amenities like food, clean water, and medicine

Syria, August 24, 2017: For 100-year-old Tamam Shaheen, the day Islamic State militants took over her village was not particularly memorable.

“One night Free Syrian Army rebels were occupying our village and the next day it just changed,” she said, sitting on the concrete floor of a one-room house with an unlit cigarette in her hand. “All those bearded people were here.”

During their rule over her village, Sarran, has militants ruined the local economy and forced villagers to adhere to dress codes. They tried, unsuccessfully, to enforce a strict no-smoking policy, but none of this impacted Shaheen’s life greatly.

ALSO READ: Civilian Deaths Surge in Raqqa as Islamic State (ISIS) Tactics Slow US-backed Advances

But even the most benign corners of formerly IS-held territory were not spared personal tragedies. Shaheen’s grandson is now imprisoned amid the post-IS chaos, accused of fighting with the militant group.

“Militants ordered me to wear a veil on my face,” she said. “But I rebuked them. I told them ‘It is not your job to tell me what to wear!’”

Authorities holding 22-year-old Abdulrahman now, she said, are not so easy to rebuke.

The arrest

In other parts of IS-controlled Syria and Iraq, IS beat husbands and fathers of women who refused to cover their faces. Locals have been imprisoned or even killed for smoking cigarettes.

Islamic state rule in syria
One-hundred-year-old Tamam Shaheen refuted IS orders to veil her face or quit smoking, but in the wake of IS rule, her grandson is now accused of having fought alongside the group, in Sarran, Syria, Aug. 18, 2017. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Militants are now fighting to the death in the nearest large city, Raqqa, 60 kilometers away, but eight months ago in Sarran, IS just left.

Around the same time, Abudulrahman was returning to the village when he was arrested, according to his mother, Wahda Mustafa. The family and neighbors say he is disabled from a car accident and may have accidentally agreed he was guilty of crimes he didn’t commit.

“My son was coming home from Raqqa but the roads were blocked,” said Wahda Mustafa. “They picked him up at a checkpoint, but I don’t know why.”

Stigma after Raqqa flight

During the course of Shaheen’s 100 years, Sarran’s population grew from about four families to roughly 700 people. As IS is slowly being defeated in the region, the village is growing again.

Across a brown field of dust, displaced families from Raqqa crowd into a schoolhouse. Refugee camps in the area are notoriously short of food, clean water and medicine, baking in the desert in the hot summer sun.

Islamic state rule in Syria
Farming comprises the main industry for many Syrian villagers which yields just enough profits for survival. However, high taxes and corruption under IS rule created increased difficulties than extreme ideologies for many rural farmers, near Sarran, Syria, Aug. 18, 2017. (H. Murdock/VOA)

But families say they pay a high price for the small comforts of settling in a village rather than a camp after fleeing IS. The displaced Raqqa residents are noticeably more conservative than the villagers, with the women remaining secluded inside, while local women in colorful dresses cook and smoke cigarettes in public.

Raqqa families are shunned and often presumed to be IS supporters, despite multiple investigations concluding they are innocent, according to Khalid Abdullah, 40, a former oil worker from Raqqa and a father of 11.

“I saw beheadings and hands cut off in the city,” he said under an awning near the school. “It was raining mortars when we ran away. But still, they call my son ‘IS’ when he goes out.”

IS Corruption

The more lasting tragedies touching the lives of the people of Sarran come not from IS extremism, but from ordinary corruption. Before the war, the Syrian government had mandated that wealthy landowners in the area dole out portions of their fields to local farmers.

Islamic state rule in syria
Camps for displaced persons in Syria are short of food, clean water and health care, with some fleeing urban families saying they prefer to face stigma in villages than endure hardship in camps, in Ain Issa, Syria, Aug. 17, 2017. (H. Murdock/VOA)

The farmers survived by working the land and reaping the profits. Under IS, bribes were paid and profits from the land reverted back to the rich, according to Ayman Kalaf, 19, one of Shaheen’s many grandsons.

Surrounded by other farmers, who nodded in agreement as he spoke, Kalaf described how under IS, his poor village became even poorer and families are still struggling to recover.

“Long ago this area was under a feudal system, with all of the valuable farms owned by the rich,” he said. “But modern governments required owners to divide some of their lands among local farmers. When IS came in, they gave the land back to the rich.”

And while their suffering may not be as dramatic or even traumatic as the suffering of families living under siege or hunted and sometimes slaughtered by IS, villagers say they already lived on the edge of survival in the best of times, and they barely made it through their time under IS.

“I have to take care of my house and children, and I work as a farmer,” said Umm Mohammad, a local women’s activist. “We build our own houses with bricks we make from the earth. Life here is hard.” (VOA)

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Pakistan’s Northwest Province Struggles To Fight Against Terror Financing

Despite its continued efforts against terrorism, terror financing remains a challenge for Pakistan due to political resistance, sympathizers and money trails that are hard to track, analysts say.

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Terror Financing
Terror Financing. Pixabay

Pakistan’s restive northwest province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has issued directives to its administrative and security departments to make serious efforts to cut off the money supply of banned terror groups.

The provincial departments have been instructed to devise a strategy to crack down and to closely monitor the proscribed groups and individuals involved in raising funds illegally for welfare or religious purposes, Pakistani media reported.

Despite its continued efforts against terrorism, terror financing remains a challenge for Pakistan due to political resistance, sympathizers and money trails that are hard to track, analysts say.

 

“Pakistan will have to come up with a strategy to freeze assets of terror groups, make it difficult for terrorists to gather funds, but to also spot those who’ve adopted new identities and have re-established their networks,” A. Z. Hilali, head of political science department at the Peshawar University told VOA.

Suspect groups identified

The official document circulated by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s government emphasized banned groups are not allowed to gather money “under any circumstances” and security forces and the administration should ensure people and groups raising money for mosques, charity or madrassas (religious seminaries) are lawfully doing so.

In 2015, Pakistan banned around 200 terror groups after establishing their involvement in sectarian and terrorism related activities against the state.

Pakistan had also frozen around $3 million worth of assets of 5,000 suspected terrorists last year. “We will make every possible effort to implement National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terror financing in our province,” Shaukat Yousafzai, spokesperson for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government told VOA.

“We’re the biggest victim of terrorism and we do not want them [terrorists] to succeed. We’ll also work to start awareness programs so that banned groups can be prohibited from gathering funds from the masses,” Yousafzai said.

A report issued by the Financial Monitoring Unit of Pakistan in March estimated the annual operational budget of terrorist organizations is $48,000 to $240,000.

The terror groups in Pakistan generate hefty amounts through charity and welfare work, receive huge foreign donations and use the “hawala system,” an alternative finance system, used for money laundering, experts say.

Also Read: US has given Pakistan $265 million to fight terror: US State Department report.

National plan

Pakistan’s National Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy aimed at eliminating extremism mentions the state should “choke financing for terrorist and terrorist organizations.”

Hilali says there is a need to introduce legislation to prohibit collection of funds from the general public. “Terrorists collect large sums of money especially during the holy month of Ramadan under the guise of Zakat [mandatory Islamic charity].”

“The madrassas [religious seminaries] also play an important role and we are aware that a few of them remained involved in collecting funds on behalf of banned terror outfits in the past,” Hilali added.

Security analysts also stress that the government should regulate and register all the religious seminaries across the country and should practice caution before making donations to religious organizations and seminaries.

In 2016, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s government received scathing criticism when it allocated a grant of $3 million to Darul Uloom Haqqania, a religious seminary that is interpreted by some critics as the “University of Jihad.”

The Haqqani network, considered a terrorist group by Afghanistan and the United States, continues to fight Afghan and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of providing support to the Haqqani network. The U.S. State Department released its annual Country Report on Terrorism 2016 earlier this month. It criticized Pakistan and said it remained unsuccessful in stopping the activities of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. (VOA)