Traumatised Yazidis and Christians say they can’t live alongside Sunni Arab ‘collaborators’
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attends the celebration of liberation and victory of Mosul,
“The people of Mosul will receive their salaries, while the people of Basra will receive the bodies of their martyrs,” runs a bitter comment on Iraqi social media.
Many Iraqis see the inhabitants of Mosul as willing collaborators with Isil during its three years in power in the city. In particular, there are calls for the punishment of ‘Daesh [Isil] families’ whose male members had become Isil fighters or officials.
The desire for revenge runs deep among the victims of Isil in the wake of the fall of Mosul, which is scarcely surprising given the cruelty and violence of Isil rule. “I can always tell members of Daesh families when they ask for medical treatment,” said a volunteer medical worker in west Mosul. “They have plump faces and look well-fed, while everybody else in Mosul is thin and malnourished.”
Grounds for suspicion that a person was associated with Isil may be flimsy, but they are deeply held. “When women and children appear without any male relatives with them, it is assumed that the men were with Isil and have been killed, arrested or have fled,” says Belkis Wille, the senior researcher in Iraq for Human Rights Watch. Young men from Mosul and the rest of Nineveh province find it difficult to persuade the victorious Iraqi security forces that they spent years under Isil without doing some form of military service.
Revenge killings of suspected Isil activists and collaborators are still limited in number. There have been some abductions and killings in the Sunni Arab villages south of Mosul, but no mass killings along the lines frequently carried out by Isil.
Yazidis who once lived to the west of Mosul and Christians are convinced that their Sunni Arab neighbours, with whom they had previously lived peacefully, were complicit with Isil in murdering, raping and stealing. They say they cannot return to their villages and towns if Isil collaborators are allowed to live there. In addition, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and the Kurdish authorities have an interest in rounding off or expanding the territory occupied by their communities at the expense of the Sunni Arabs whose fortunes, willingly or unwillingly, have become linked to Isil.
Communal punishment in the shape of the forced expulsion of ‘Daesh families’, which may mean sanctions against whole villages, is taking place in parts of northern and central Iraq. Ms Wille says that at the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in Khazar and Hassan Shami in Kurdish-controlled territory east of Mosul, Sunni Arabs can “see their former villages, but are not being allowed to return there”.
Sectarian and ethnic cleansing by state authorities or militia groups in Iraq may have long-term political objectives, but they also fulfil popular wishes. There are hundreds of social media accounts evidently from Iraqi Shias, accusing the people of Mosul of supporting Isil.
Since the US invasion of 2003 Iraq has witnessed much demographic change. The Shia-Sunni sectarian war in 2006-7 saw Sunnis compressed into smaller enclaves and mixed areas become Shia.
Since the counter-offensive against Isil began in 2014, Sunni Arabs have been forced to leave villages and towns in areas south of Baghdad and in northern Hilla province.
The Sunni community of Iraq, some six million strong, has suffered badly, with all its main cities in addition to Mosul being heavily damaged by war. There are still 500,000 Sunni IDPs in Kirkuk, who are being allowed to return to wholly Sunni centres but not to those where Shia also live.
In both Iraqi and Kurdish- controlled areas there are camps that are little better than “open prisons”, says Ms Wille, where IDPs cannot come and go from the camp freely, receive visitors or even own a mobile phone. Enforced demographic change may be one motive for this, but there is also genuine, though probably exaggerated, fear of Isil ‘sleeper cells’ waiting to strike.