Residents of a refugee camp in Karbala appeared confident that the strength they draw from Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain, who laid down his life fighting an unjust ruler there in the seventh century, will see them through
Inside his small prefabricated house at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Iraq’s Karbala, Ibrahim Abdul Rehman appeared down but emphasized he was not out. ‘I want to tell the world one thing: we are people who are ill but we would not die,’ Rehman said metaphorically when our group of journalists met him at the camp for those displaced due to the war against ISIS.
Rehman appeared confident that the strength they draw from Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussain, who laid down his life fighting an unjust ruler in Karbala in the seventh century, will see them through. He echoed a sentiment palpable everywhere in Karbala as well as that of fellow residents of the camp in the windswept desert plains.
The residents appeared confident that the defeat of ISIS was imminent. ‘We are civilised people. We will fight for every inch of soil for hundreds of years if needed,’ Rehman told us as he sat with Imam Hussain’s picture in the backdrop.
Outside Rehman’s house Ibrahim, 10, was among a group of children on bicycles, the prized possessions gifted to them recently. He shrugged his shoulders when we tried to speak to him.
‘Life was not good,’ Ibrahim, told us through an interpreter. He said he missed home and school in Mosul which was then under ISIS control and one of the scenes of intense fighting. Ibrahim soon jumped on his bicycle and cycled away.
Safa Ahmed, 9, who was part of another group of more outgoing children, said they wanted better schooling at their camp, where the mood was optimistic with the liberation of cities such as Ramadi and continuing successes against ISIS.
Their parents were worried that the children were scared, and feared they would take years to overcome the trauma the war and the displacement had inflicted on them.
The camp residents were united in sorrow and almost all of them had suffered personal losses. Ruqqaya, a displaced woman and mother of two, told us she lost her two cousins before they arrived at the camp. She was worried about the future of her children.
Ruqqaya’s husband was under depression since suffering injuries in an ISIS attack. Ruqqaya’s neighbour, Hajar Ali Jamal, braved the ISIS onslaught on their city until they were forced to leave Mosul when her uncle was killed and they also faced death threats. ISIS, she said, shows no mercy. ‘They are criminals,’ she told us outside her one-bedroom temporary home.
Muqdat Husain Elyas, 33, who came to the camp after he was nearly killed when ISIS terrorists shot him thrice in his abdomen, referred to the liberation of Ramadi. He hoped the Iraqi forces would follow suit in Mosul to allow them to return home sooner for their children to have normal life and schooling.
Elyas said they had nothing to complain about the facilities at the camp except erratic water supply and lack of schools for their children. But home, he emphasised, is home after all.
We visited the camp around the time Jan Kubiš, the UN envoy to Iraq, told the Security Council that Baghdad was steadily gaining ground against ISIS. Hundreds of kilometers away, Elyas thought ISIS would be finished by the end of 2016 given how the Iraqi forces were decimating the terror group.
Kubis told the Security Council that ISIS was gradually losing its appeal and that the liberation of Beiji, Sinjar, Ramadi, and the clearance of the surrounding areas had instilled hope in the Iraqi people that their country will be liberated.
He added the success demonstrated the ‘increasingly resolute and effective support to Iraq of the global coalition’ to counter ISIS and provided lessons for the liberation of the remaining territories such as Mosul.
Kubis said Tikrit’s stabilisation allowed 90% of its population to return home. By February 2016, over 500,000 displaced Iraqis had returned to their homes, and up to 900,000 were expected to follow suit by the end of the year.
Rasha Saeed, 26, another resident of the camp, hoped to return home sooner. Indian films were among the things that distracted her from her woes as a displaced person. Saeed told us Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan were the only things she knew about India.
‘I watch Bollywood films,’ she said as she pointed towards a TV at her makeshift home. Saeed followed us to our bus insisting how could the guests from al-Hind (India) leave without having lunch.
Aga Sultan, an educationist, social worker, and now a politician who coordinated our visit, was mobbed with requests for facilitating treatment in India. He had for over a decade been helping Iraqis get treatment in India.
Aga Sultan realised how inadequate medical care was in Karbala when his mother fell sick during their first visit to Imam Hussain’s shrine in 2005. The shrine management was then yet to come to its own and Karbala had just begun to emerge from decades of neglect under dictator Saddam Hussein.
Aga Sultan helped in setting up a telemedicine centre in Karbala and sent doctors and technicians to Iraq for setting up medical camps. Syed Saadudin, the director of Imam Hussain’s shrine, had also undergone heart surgery in Aga Sultan’s native Bengaluru in southern India.
The Imam Hussain shrine ran the IDP camp, where we were taken to Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, and Christian homes to drive home the point that how the ISIS terror has impacted all Iraqis and that they were united in resisting it.
The tragedy that the war on ISIS has hardly left anyone untouched. An eight-year-old boy Murtaba Rahim’s birthday at a nearby camp was among the most tragic moments we witnessed during our stay in Iraq.
His father, an anti-ISIS Hashd fighter, was killed while defending the shrine of the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zainab, in Syria. The boy’s grandmother, Nasreen, joined Hashd’s women’s wing after her son’s death. She had dressed up her grandchildren in battle gear to celebrate her grandson’s birthday at a camp. ‘I want to fight Daesh [ISIS],’ Rahim told us, poignantly reminding us the loss of innocence was among the gravest losses Iraq suffered.