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For Iraqi Families With ISIS Links, Agonizing Choices — And Consequences

A young fighter stands at a checkpoint near the Jada'aa camp for internally displaced people. Just before dusk, the sky is darkened by smoke from oil fires set by ISIS nearby.
Jane Arraf

When the Iraqi army liberated her village from ISIS this year, Hamda Mahmoud made an agonizing choice: She handed her teenage son over to Iraqi security forces.

Like hundreds of other boys in this area of northern Iraq, Ahmed, 15 and in fifth grade at the time, had joined ISIS.

Mahmoud thought that by handing over her teenager, she was keeping him safe. Instead, he's disappeared into Iraq's murky justice system. His mother says she's heard he has been tortured — and possibly executed.

"I took him myself to the army," says Mahmoud. "We thought they would maybe put him in jail for a year to punish him."

Because her son had joined ISIS, Mahmoud, a widow, was expelled from her village of Imam Gharbi along with another son and a daughter-in-law. They now live in a tent in a camp for internally displaced people about 60 miles from Mosul.

They are among hundreds of families kicked out of their homes in Ninevah Province by a new Sunni tribal force trained and armed by the United States.

The Sunni tribesman form a small part of the overwhelmingly Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) formed when the Iraqi army collapsed against the ISIS assault two years ago. The entire PMF has recently been formally brought under the umbrella of the Iraqi government, which is responsible for paying them. The U.S. has screened and given rifles and training to the Sunni fighters, with the goal of using the fighters as a holding force to prevent ISIS from coming back to areas cleared by the Iraqi army. The U.S. says it also provides basic human rights training.

While leaders of the tribal force call the evictions a security measure, U.N. officials have criticized it as collective punishment.

Ahmed's older cousin, Shehab Khalil, says the teenager wasn't particularly religious. But in a swath of villages where hostility to Iraqi security forces has run deep, he says hundreds of boys, some as young as 10, were persuaded to join the group.

Mahmoud says Ahmed was given a rifle after he pledged allegiance to ISIS. She didn't want to let him come home.

"He came to the house with the Kalashnikov and told me, 'If you don't let me in, I will kill you and I will kill the whole family.' "

Mahmoud wears a faded black headscarf and a brown polyester dress that hangs over her small frame. She sits as if trying to take up as little space as possible. Her husband died years ago and one of her sons drowned in 2005. Another was killed in an airstrike two years ago. Ahmed and his older brother, now 20, were all she had left.

She says for months, she went from one ISIS leader to another, telling them Ahmed was a child and begging them to release him. One finally said he would. But instead, she says, the group sent him to Syria to man an anti-aircraft battery.

When Ahmed came back four months later, he told his mother he realized that ISIS had been lying — boasting of victories when thousands of fighters were being killed. He told her he wanted to quit.

She says Ahmed agreed to be handed to the army. He told her, "Army justice is better than what ISIS would do to me."

After she turned her son in, "They told me they were going to execute him," she says now. "People are saying they tortured him into confessing a lot of things, but we know he didn't do them. I was told to stop asking about him because it would be bad for us."

She says when she tried to approach a government minister from her area when he was touring the camp where she lives now, his bodyguards wouldn't let her near him. And now that she's been admitted to the camp, she's not allowed to leave.

More than 9,000 Iraqis displaced by fighting in Mosul live in the desolate camp. On what would have been a sunny day, clouds of black smoke from oil fires set by ISIS in oil fields near adjoining Gayarah blot out the sun. Children, coughing in the cold, play on muddy gravel paths between plastic tents.

An aid worker in the camp who asked not to be identified said hundreds of families there had been expelled from their homes by tribal forces.

"We support those tribal forces because they fall directly under control of the Iraqi security forces," says U.S. Army Col. Brett Sylvia. He says when they hear about instances of civilians being evicted by the tribal forces, they raise the issue with the Iraqi government.

Asked by NPR about expulsions from the villages, the leader of the tribal force for Mahmoud's area said his men were enforcing a decision by the heads of local tribes to throw out the families of anyone who joined ISIS.

Khalil, Ahmed's cousin, says he and his family were evicted from an adjoining village because two of his uncles had joined ISIS. His father, a primary school teacher who had served on the Iraqi elections commission, refused to join.

"The tribal forces came and said, 'Why aren't you leaving?' We said, 'We don't have ISIS in the family,' " he says. "They came and put us in jail and set fire to the car and threatened the women. The next day, we left."

Khalil says they would be afraid to return, even if they were allowed to go back.

"The problem will remain," he says. "If an explosion happens tomorrow in the village, they will blame us. They will round us up and kill us or put us in jail. Now we have a mark against our names." And for the moment, nowhere else to go.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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