Tal Afar was retaken from the terror group two years ago this month, but social and security challenges remain - and more than half of the city’s population hasn't returned.
Iraqi authorities announced retaking Tal Afar city from ISIS or Daesh on August 31 2017. Lying 60 kilometres west of Mosul in Nineveh governorate, the city was one of the terror group’s last strongholds.
Most of its residents are Turkmen – Iraqi citizens of Turkic origin – and some city districts have a majority Sunni Muslim population, while in others most residents are Shia.
Homes, businesses and places of worship were badly damaged in Tal Afar during Daesh’s occupation, including the Ottoman-era citadel, which the militants looted and destroyed after they overran the city in June 2014. Now, the hill on which the fortress once stood is home to the rusty skeletons of Iraqi army vehicles. Empty ouzo bottles littering the dry ground also suggest it’s become a hangout for surreptitious boozing.
Some 20 percent of the city’s buildings have suffered damage or destruction, according to Tal Afar’s Mayor Qassem Mohammed Sherif Ibrahim. But little repair work has taken place in the two years since the city was retaken from Daesh, contributing to the sense among residents that Tal Afar is not high on the Iraqi government’s priority list.
Daesh militants also destroyed at least seven Shia places of worship in Tal Afar: the terror group views Shia Muslims as infidels. They included the Shrine of Ar Mammut in Al Khodra district. Today, the rubble-strewn and weed-filled site smells not of incense, as it might once have done, but of rubbish slowly rotting in the summer sun. It appears to have become a makeshift trash dump.
Between 80-90 percent of the city’s Turkmen residents – both Sunni and Shia Muslims – fled during Daesh's rein. They went either to Turkey, elsewhere in northern Iraq, or to Shia-majority provinces in the country’s south. Since August 2017, just over 40 per cent of the former 200,000-strong population, from both sects, has returned. But many others have not, and remain displaced within Iraq, or have fled abroad.
Among the reasons for not returning are misgivings over the security situation, a lack of government services, and few job opportunities. Electricity in Tal Afar is intermittent, rubbish piles in the streets and is disposed of by open burning, and tap water is not drinkable. The one remaining hospital – Daesh blew up the other – is overstretched, serving surrounding towns and villages as well as Tal Afar.
Despite the damage, destruction and population loss, Tal Afar is attempting to return to something resembling normality. Some of those who have returned have opened small businesses. Al Serail Street in Al Nasr district is Tal Afar’s main shopping thoroughfare, home to gold vendors, women’s clothing shops and purveyors of coral pink and white frilly wedding dresses.
None appears to be doing a roaring trade, but are open all the same. Vegetable sellers stand behind carts of the area’s famous pale green aubergines. They are set against a backdrop of the twisted metal and rubble from damaged and destroyed buildings.
Mayor Ibrahim told TRT World that relations between the city’s Sunni and Shia residents are better now than they were in the post-2003 US invasion period, when violence along sectarian lines seared through Tal Afar, and Sunni residents were persecuted by newly-empowered Shia authorities. The city later became a base for Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“It’s true that there was tension, but after people returned [after Daesh was ousted] the two sides have started to live together, they visit each other, share occasions together and see the opportunity for business partnerships,” he claims.
Asked if he hopes more former residents will return to Tal Afar, Ibrahim says: “The Daesh members will not come back.” He suggests that individuals suspected of sympathising with the group will be blocked from returning.
But standards in Iraq’s legal system fall well below par, and human rights organisations have doubts that those accused of links with Daesh will be tried fairly. In its latest Iraq country report, Human Rights Watch said authorities, “systematically violated the due process rights of ISIS [Daesh] suspects and other detainees”. It also reported significant discrimination against those accused of Daesh links and banned from returning to their homes – including in Nineweh province, where Tal Afar is located.
Security has not entirely returned to Tal Afar. The US-backed battle to oust Daesh was carried out by the Iraqi Army and paramilitaries from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Numerous PMF units – including small brigades of a few dozen men run by local figures – have since taken up a more permanent presence. They are mostly responsible for security on the city’s edges, while the Iraqi army and police generally look after the inner limits.
“The situation in Tal Afar and its surrounds is 75 percent stable – just 75 percent,” said Sheikh Mohammed Naser, Al Abbas Combat Division leader in Nineweh, in an interview at his brigade’s Tal Afar base. “They [Daesh pockets] are being tracked by the PMF intelligence services, in co-operation with the Iraqi army.”
Alongside incomplete security, Tal Afar’s residents face social challenges. Some 1,300 people remain missing following Daesh’s kidnap of thousands of Shia Turkmen from Tal Afar. Just 44 people have returned.
In a conservative society where women often didn’t go out to work, the kidnap of men has left female-headed households in Tal Afar.
Najme Ibrahim Aziz, 35, was with her husband, Adel, when Daesh attacked in 2014, and kidnapped him.
“They [the Daesh militants] covered their faces – I couldn’t recognise anyone,” she recalls. “We were afraid that they would take the women. But when they took the men, we left immediately: we fled, so they wouldn’t come to take us.”
The mother of five children has had no news of her husband since, and her family is missing its former breadwinner – Adel worked as a generator mechanic. She craves information about her partner.
“Even if they returned him dead, I would bury him,” she says. “The most important thing is to know what happened to him. But I don’t know anything.”
Meanwhile, Shia Turkmen women and girls who were kidnapped by Daesh from Tal Afar in 2014 have faced social stigma following their return. Rape and sexual violence victims are often outcast by their tribes, and although the International Organisation for Migration provides some mental health and psychosocial support, researchers say much more support, as well as economic opportunities, is needed.
Added to that is the stigma surrounding Tal Afar as a city, because of its associations with Daesh. The terror group used the city as a holding base for thousands of Yazidis, a minority ethno-religious community whose heartland was once in northern Iraq, and whom the militants consider devil worshippers. They enslaved and sexually abused Yazidi women and girls in Tal Afar, and imprisoned others in the city before transferring them to other parts of territory formerly under their control.
Mayor Ibrahim acknowledged the deep misgivings over his city among Yazidis. Some of Tal Afar’s religious leaders are involved in efforts to try to rebuild relationships between Yazidis and Sunni Muslims from surrounding villages. They include Sayyed Muhammad Jawad Al Mousawi, a Shia cleric.
“I was asked to deal with issues between the Yazidis and the Sunnis in the region, not just the Sunnis of Tal Afar” he told TRT World. “The Yazidis’ demand is that Sunni tribes hand over the names of their members embroiled in the kidnap of Yazidis.”
Some Sunni villages have handed over names, said Al Mousawi, but others have not. “They [the Sunni tribes] talk, but don’t act, bar a few,” he said, when asked about his meetings with leaders and mediators. “Of about 12 villages liberated from Daesh, there are around seven that have given the names of wanted persons.”