It was barely two years ago when Islamic State (ISIS) took over two towns in the eastern province of Diyala after security forces abandoned their posts. They are the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla, including several other villages around the Himreen mountains, which have long been a hideout for militants. The Iraqi army fired artillery at Saadiya and Jalawla from the nearby town of Muqdadiya, sending dozens of families fleeing towards Khaniqin in KRI, near the Iranian border. Today, these towns have been long-liberated from ISIS. The major concern now is the safe return of the IDPs back to their homes in Saadiyah and Jalawla. The process of returning refugees has begun and will continue, according to Brig. Ghalib Atiya, a media officer in the provincial police force. An ocular visit to these towns, however, showed a different situation.
As ASUDA representative, I hitched a ride with an international NGO to conduct an ocular damage and needs assessment of Jalawla. We drove from Sulaymaniyah, across Khanaquin and Kalar, straight to Jalawla, in order to determine if this report is true. We met with the mayor of Jalawla, then the security forces gave us a tour of the entire town. What we found is a largely unpopulated town, once the home of 30,000 people. During our visit, we saw an estimated 200 civilians present in Jalawla.
We surveyed a site of immense destruction. Street after street, all we saw are bombed and imploded houses, boarded-up stores and abandoned buildings, downed electrical poles and powerlines, and mountains of debris and collapsed cement blocks. One or two local stores have partially reopened, including a cafe-bakery. Authorities claim that a few hundred families have returned. But local sources tell us that they only come during the day to check on their properties, then return to the IDP settlements in Khanaquin and Kalar. Even the mayor, despite holding office in Jalawla, has not moved his family back.
Joint Iraqi and Peshmerga forces regained control of Jalawla in November 2014, driving out ISIS. The Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi is also known to have assisted government forces to liberate the town. They had announced back in July 2015 that the town should be ready for the return of families before the start of the schoolyear.
From our visit, this is what we learned:
1. The extent of destruction left around 1,200 houses uninhabitable.
2. Whatever houses were left standing by ISIS, these were completely destroyed by Shia militias during their short occupation of Jalawla.
3. Only houses spray-painted with the words “I’m Shia” or “I’m Kurdish”, were partially spared.
4. Residents talk about the harsh brutality inflicted on them by the militias.
5. There were a few families walking the streets, but local sources told us that they usually leave before nightfall to return to the IDP settlements in Khanaquin and Kalar.
6. There are no public service set up. No electricity, no safe and running water, no stores where goods can be acquired, no commercial activity, and no fully functioning schools.
7. Many roads are impassable due to debris, burned-out vehicles, and mangled buildings that had collapsed onto small streets and alleyways.
8. The mayor and the head of Asayish reported that around 840 unexploded ordnances have been removed from Jalawla, and assured us that it is safe for humanitarian organisations to access Jalawla and set up their programs.
9. The presence of Kurdish Peshmerga and Asayish forces is markedly visible, more than any other security forces. They walk in groups and appear to carry the bulk of the task of protecting Jalawla.
10. ICRC is busy with food distribution in Jalawla.
11. The office of the mayor is fully functional.
We spent an hour talking to the mayor about the details of recovery. We listened to his urgent and passionate appeal. His town needs help, he said, to be rebuilt. He appeals to the international community to help rebuild the services in Jalawla to encourage civilians to return. The mayor made an especially detailed appeal for the women of his town. He strongly requests NGOs to set up listening centers for psychosocial counselling of women and girls. He identified this as one of the most crucial factors for recovery. In addition, he described the long-standing social marginalisation of women and girls, and appealed for a strategic program addressing their empowerment against harmful traditions and sexual violence. If an organization is willing to set up these projects in Jalawla, his office will provide support to the fullest.
We tried to visit Saadiyah but were denied access. Saadiyah is under the control of Shia militia groups. We are currently uploading our photo images to UNITAR / UNOSAT. In behalf of the mayor and the people of Jalawla, we are issuing this appeal for assistance in the town’s recovery and rehabilitation efforts.
In behalf of ASUDA, we issue this urgent appeal for assistance in building listening centers, psychosocial counselling centers, and women’s safety places in Jalawla. ASUDA has experts and specialists, both local and international, who are ready to assist in the establishment of programs for women, girls, and children. We cannot do this massive task on our own, and we are seeking partners.
Report written and submitted by:
Gender Security and International Liaison
ASUDA is dedicated to combating violence against women through an institutional and systematic approach to enhance the status of women regardless of differences in ethnic grouping and religious background. ASUDA’s strategy underscores a multifaceted approach to addressing violence against women through protection, awareness, research, capacity building, and empowerment.
Please find the complete report attached below,