Life after ISIS: Reflections from Iraq

Franc Cortada Conflict, General, Humanitarian, Refugees and IDPs

Oxfam is working with conflict affected communities and internally displaced people in Iraq. Franc Cortada, Oxfam’s Program Director, recently visited the country and was impressed by people’s determination to get on with their lives in the midst of large scale devastation.

On my recent visit to Iraq I had the chance to meet Oxfam’s teams on the ground and see our work across the country, including our humanitarian in-camp and off-camp response around Mosul.

ISIS left death, fear and mistrust behind
Large areas of the country have already been retaken from ISIS, but the battle has left hundreds of villages in ruins with massive damage and destruction, and most basic infrastructures unusable. ISIS left death, fear and mistrust behind. It’s hard to hear many of the stories regarding forced marriages; people who have lost everything; and women and children who even now, in the Hamam Al Alil 2 camp, fear to go out at night to the latrines.

People who fled fearing for their lives are now returning and starting from scratch
ISIS’ offensives have left 10 million people directly affected and in need and over 3,8 million internally displaced people (IDPs). People who fled fearing for their lives are now returning and starting from scratch.

Driving through the streets in Basheer or the areas close to Mosul, I could see ruins all over: jumbles of metal and bricks, empty houses. But these days I also saw people’s determination to get on with their lives; and I saw some of the transformation in Diyala and Kirkuk, retaken over a year ago and where Oxfam has steadily and tirelessly supported returnees.

Pride in our program

I’m back with a strong sense of pride. What we do in Iraq is extremely relevant, well grounded and is truly supporting hundreds of thousands of people, whether providing direct assistance in the front lines to people fleeing; assisting those in camps where we can add value and supporting host, IDPs and returnees in early recovery aspects. Our programs are anchored at community and local levels – making a difference and having tangible impact on the ground. Here are just two examples of the impact of our work:

Rebuilding Jalawla

The mayor was profuse in his thanks as he told us how Oxfam’s interventions were key to Jalawla’s rejuvenation
This market in Jalawla, a small town in Diyala, northern Iraq was retaken from ISIS by Kurdish and Iraqi forces in early 2016. The first photo shows how the market looked soon after. The streets were largely empty, with IDPs only beginning to return. At that time, Oxfam had only recently started renovating the water supply, running cash for work programmes, re-roofing the market and providing financial support to market traders who needed assistance to get their businesses up and running.

The second photo was taken a couple of weeks ago. What was previously a ghost town is now where people throng to do their shopping from miles around. There was hustle and bustle, deals were being struck, lots of sweet tea was being drunk, there were traffic jams and the organised chaos that you would expect of such a place. The mayor was profuse in his thanks as he told us how Oxfam’s interventions were key to Jalawla’s rejuvenation. The Oxfam Iraq team is now seeking to replicate this experience in multiple towns and villages across Diyala, Kirkuk and eventually Mosul. Enabling children to return home, bringing communities back together and helping families begin the long and painful process of reconstructing their lives after terrible trauma.

Work in IDP camps

Abdullah lived under ISIS occupation for more than two years, he fled his home in West Mosul, on foot, a few weeks ago with his family. His elder sister was hurt in the arm as they ran. I met Abdullah in Hamam Al Alil camp 2 where he is learning from Oxfam how to stay healthy through games and laughter. Oxfam is responsible for water and sanitation, as well as public health promotion, throughout this IDP camp – a camp that was empty five weeks ago and now hosts more than 22,000 people in nearly 5,000 tents.

Challenges remain

Despite ISIS’ withdrawal from most of the country the situation remains fragile. There are still some ISIS sleeper cells in territory they previously occupied; social cohesion is extremely weak across these areas; the disagreement between Kurdistan and the Federal Iraqi Government over the Disputed Internal Boundaries remains an unresolved issue as well as many other layers of conflicts.

Security can deteriorate and new conflicts can emerge within short time frames
Security can deteriorate and new conflicts can emerge within short time frames. The severity of social and economic destruction of some communities, extensive corruption, weak governance, political manoeuvrings, competition for natural resources, and religious / ethnic tensions, combined with ‘artificial’ national borders, mean that it is highly likely that insecurity and open conflict, which cause displacements and humanitarian need, will continue in Iraq at least over the coming five to ten years.

Moving forward, supporting the voluntary return of IDPs will be Oxfam’s core priority, ensuring not only accompaniment but also the basic enabling conditions (access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and livelihood opportunities) for people to return, and work at policy level to help secure those conditions. We will also continue to prioritise work in a number of areas: conflict-sensitive approaches, working in partnerships with local organisations, incorporating women’s rights into programming and using cash transfers.

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Sarah Hall