Jalawla: Iraqi city remains a ghost town after being recaptured from Isis

Residents wait to return, as Shia and Kurd militia fight over power

Cathy Otten
Saturday 12 December 2015 22:34
In the year since Jalawla was liberated, little has been done to rebuild the town
In the year since Jalawla was liberated, little has been done to rebuild the town

When the town of Jalawla was recaptured from Islamic State (Isis) many displaced families may have have harboured thoughts of returning. However, children did not return to their schools and the graffiti-covered, bomb-damaged bazaar did not reopen to great fanfare.

Instead the liberators failed to agree over who would hold the town and the boarded-up shops and mosques remain closed.

Before Isis attacked Jalawla, beside the Diyala River, in 2014, the town had an ethnically diverse population of around 80,000. Nearly all of them are still displaced. The town changed hands several times before a final offensive in November last year, in which Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia militiamen took control.

Kurdish forces also recaptured the town of Sinjar, 230 miles north-west of Jalawla, from jihadist forces, last month. Displaced Yazidi familes suffered extreme persecution from Isis troops around Sinjar, and now fear that like Jalawla, their town may remain in ruins.

With fierce battles in other areas too, including an offensive led by Iraqi government forces to retake the city of Ramadi from Isis, there will be much to rebuild.

In Jalawla, acting sub-district director Jacob Yousif ushered The Independent on Sunday past piles of rubble in what used to be the town’s main bazaar, but later became the frontline with Isis. “You can still smell the blood,” he said, looking at the blasted metal shop awnings. He gestured to a Shia mosque blown apart by the Isis – “The only one of 59 mosques destroyed,” he said.

It was Shia militiamen who helped the Peshmerga oust the jihadis from the town in late November. The Peshmerga had been fighting Isis for six months and lost more than 100 men. After months of uneasy post-liberation shared rule, the Peshmerga forced the Shia fighters to retreat to a nearby town this spring.

What was once Jalawla’s thriving marketplace

Tension between the sides has often resurfaced. This summer a shooting was reported between the local Shia militia in nearby Saadiya and the Peshmerga in Jalawla. In early November more serious clashes erupted Tuz Khurmatu in Salahaddin province before a ceasefire was agreed.

The destruction of the Shia mosque is indicative of the harm done to the ties between different ethnic and sectarian groups in Jalawla; a side effect of the war being fought against Isis across both Iraq and Syria.

In Ninawa, Yazidis who were persecuted by Isis say they can no longer live side by side with their Sunni Muslim former neighbours, whom they accuse of siding with the jihadists. Disputes have sometimes turned violent.

Jalawla is controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga, but like Sinjar, it is part of Iraq’s disputed territories between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region, a factor that is slowing down the rebuilding of the town, said Mr Yousif.

Homes still need to be rebuilt, water and power fully restored, and explosives removed, despite ongoing clearing efforts.

“Jalawla is in Iraq so it should help the rebuilding. Right now only the Kurdistan Regional Government is helping,” he said.

Lying at the crossroads of Iraq, Kurdish areas and Iran, Jalawla was also seen to be of strategic importance to former ruler Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, who forcibly displaced its Kurdish residents and brought in Sunni Arabs, which bred resentment.

The fight with Isis has caused suspicion between former neighbours. Mahmoud Sangawi, the commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga in the area said that displaced Sunni Arabs who fought with Isis against the Kurds will not be allowed back.

As in the smattering of other towns wrestled from the jihadists across Iraq, residents will need help reconciling with each other when they return, said Christine van den Toorn, the director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. The conflict with Isis has frayed already weak community bonds – but this process cannot properly take place until the conflict is resolved.

“They have to rebuild the bazaar, the road has to be rebuilt, people have to go to work, the teachers have to come back, they have to open the schools, the hospitals,” she said.

“It is a huge problem right now. They say we can’t bring people back because of security but this leaves these areas deserted. The longer they are left to decay the harder they will be to reconstruct. In the meantime, displaced Iraqis are leaving for Europe and these towns are becoming sparse wastelands, which means the continuing breakdown of order, economy and rule of law.”

In areas of downtown Jalawla ethnic divisions are clear; the walls of some houses bear the phrases “Kurdish house”, or “Kurd lives here”. Mr Yousif says that residents are proud of their ethnicity, but the markings look like an attempt to protect homes from retribution attacks destined for Sunni Arab homes.

A Peshmerga fighter in the town’s ruins

Kurdish officials accuse the Shia militias of looting and burning homes in Jalawla. Human Rights Watch has documented the destruction of homes and the apparent kidnapping of Sunni Arabs by Shia militiamen in the aftermath of anti-Isis offensives, as well as the destruction of Arab homes in areas under Peshmerga control in Irbil and Ninawa governorates. Kurdish officials claim this is due to explosives left behind by Isis.

Abu Mizher, 59, is a Sunni Arab from Jalawla. He ran a shop selling children’s toys before he heard from his neighbours that Isis were attacking the Peshmerga, saying he had already seen Iraqi government forces fleeing. He left for Kirkuk and then Baquba, in Diyala province.

He told the IoS he would like to return home but the Peshmerga have prevented him. He was able to visit once, five months ago, to fetch his graduation certificate with the help of a Kurdish friend. “I found cracks in the walls of my house from the fighting and bombing nearby,” he said.

Mr Mizher says he feels safe living in a Sunni area of Baquba, even though he struggles to feed his family. “I hope I can go home,” he said, “but the problem is that there is a struggle for control between the Kurds and the Shia in that area and I don’t like either.”

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