HAJ ALI CAMP, IRAQ - Houla, 25, has no children, so technically she can return to her village, where the children of Islamic State militants are not welcome, no matter how young. But as a militant’s widow, she says, her presence at home could put her whole family in danger.
“If I go home they will be attacked,” she explains.
Instead, she lives in a tent in one of Iraq’s bleak desert camps, where families continue to arrive daily, despite the war’s official end more than a month ago.
Even the most conservative estimates of the number of Iraqi IS militants killed or captured in recent years reaches tens of thousands. Many of their families now live in camps like this one, shunned by their neighbors and relatives, who are often also victims of IS’s brutal crimes.
“Families of IS members are still coming here to be safe from retribution” says Zyad Khalad, an information officer at the camp, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul.
Officials say forcing IS families to return home would inflame sectarian tensions, which are already deep, and often deadly.
Widows like Houla don’t deny their husband’s crimes. But they say, in their conservative society women have little choice as to who they marry, and no say over their husbands’ decisions.
“I told him not to join the militants but he refused me,” adds Hoda, 23, Houla’s former neighbor, and a mother of three. “I knew he would get killed, and we would be left with nothing.”
At first they didn’t know IS was responsible for mass murders, slavery, beheadings, torture, wide-spread floggings and other crimes, says Houla. She does, however, admit to a long-held fear of a Shi’ite-led military known as Hashd Shaaby, or Popular Mobilization Units.
Sunni-Shia tensions fueled by political disputes are often at the heart of the ongoing violence in Iraq. When IS came to power, they won favor among portions of the population by stoking those tensions. With the militants in charge, says Houla, they believed they were safer than the alternative IS presented to them, an imminent Hashd Shaaby attack.
IS told people under their rule the Hashd Shabby were murderers and rapists, while simultaneously slaughtering and displacing Shia families. As a result, some people on both sides wanted revenge and many, like Houla, are still afraid.
“My husband was killed as Iraqi forces were battling for the city,” she says. “We ran because we thought Shia soldiers would attack us.”
And in post IS Iraq, the presence of IS families has created yet another crack in the complex, multi-ethnic society. Victims and families of IS victims of any religion often believe the wives and children support IS ideology, even if they are not accused of any crimes.
And with little formal rehabilitation in place to measure opinions, they may be correct.
“There were some things that made sense,” says Safa, 18, in a tent in the sand a few rows from Houla and Hoda. She is one of the few students who admits to having attended an IS-led school.
Safa’s family fled Tal Afar, one of IS’s last strongholds in Iraq, after her father, an IS militant, vowed to fight to the death before being arrested. “For example, they said smoking is a sin. It is. It’s bad for you and it says so in the Koran.”
But other IS rules, she adds, like strict dress codes and whippings as a punishment for small infractions, were clearly wrong in her opinion. “Nobody hated the religious police more than me,” she insists.
Surrounded by her family, Safa defends her father as a loving and progressive man. A neighbor, Abdulkareem, overhears the conversation and jumps in with far broader-held views of IS.
“As soon as they had full control, they started blowing up churches and government buildings,” he says, appearing angered by Safa’s defense of her father. “They used children as suicide bombers.”
Most wives of dead or captured militants deny ever supporting IS, or their extremist views. But Hoda, the mother of three, says her lack of support will not help her find a home.
She and her family moved many times while her husband was a militant, and after he died, she tried to go home. When she arrived, village leaders ordered her to leave and take the children, all under 11 years old, with her. With no job skills and no husband, a camp was her only option then, and now appears to be her only future.
“Maybe some men would marry a woman with children,” she says. “But no one will marry a wife of IS.”