“We lost everything”
The Islamic State group captured the Iraqi city of Jalawla in August 2014. Heavy fighting then displaced tens of thousands of its inhabitants. Recaptured in December 2015, Jalawla is now one of the most severely damaged cities in the conflict. Even if the area is still contaminated, its residents have gradually begun to move back to their homes, since the beginning of 2016. Handicap International conducts risk education and victim assistance activities there and will shortly begin clearance operations to secure the streets.
Khaled’s son, in front of his uncle’s ruined home. | © E. Fourt / Handicap International
The sun is shining in Jalawla and people are going about their business as if the war was already just a memory. But talk to the first person you meet and you get a very different story. “We lost everything,” explains Rayida, sitting in front of her home. This former English teacher, now unemployed, returned to Jalawla four months ago. “They looted our homes and destroyed everything before they left. There’s not much work. And look at our streets, they’re in ruins. What worries me most, though, is my children. They might get in an accident. They’re not careful enough sometimes.”
A few hundred metres away, a little boy is playing in front of a huge pile of rubble. “This was my uncle’s house. This is all that’s left,” says his father Khaled, who looks affectionately at his son. “I watch him carefully and tell him not to play in the rubble. When I see a suspicious object in the street, I call the authorities immediately.” Khaled learned what to do during a risk education session run by Handicap International’s partner, in his neighbourhood. The organisation has been working in Jalawla for a few months, to raise people’s awareness about the risks of explosive remnants of war and to teach them what to do if they suspect they have found an explosive weapon.
A short walk away, in the neighbourhood of Shuhada, an old man is sitting still in front of a bomb site. This area was one of the worst affected by the fighting. Not a single street has been spared by bullets or bombs. “I came back with my wife two months ago,” says Rachid, 61. “When she saw our house, she had a heart attack and died on the spot.”
“A lot of people here are extremely traumatised,” says Awtar, who works as a psychosocial support specialist for Handicap International. “This man’s situation is far from rare. Our victim assistance programme helps hundreds of people suffering from psychological distress.”
As we walk through the neighbourhood of Al Wahda, we find a rocket in front of one of the many homes destroyed by an explosion. A little further on, an ammunition jacket has been left lying on the ground. “Jalawla is infested with these sorts of hazards,” explains risk education project manager, Subhi. “It makes us more determined than ever to begin our clearance operations.” Mine action teams will start clearing Jalawla and the surrounding area in a few weeks. Handicap International will also conduct weapons clearance in other governorates affected by the conflict, including Kirkuk, further north.