Iraq allows families back to Fallujah for the first time, but just a handful make it
The Iraqi government has allowed a trickle of civilians back into the western city of Fallujah, where they will begin the daunting task of rebuilding their lives in a city ravaged by years of conflict.
Three months after the city was recaptured from Islamic State militants, a convoy of just seven families returned in the early hours of the afternoon after being checked against databases.
Returnees were vastly outnumbered by local officials, journalists and security forces in the empty city.
Once home to more than 250,000 people, the population shrank to nothing in waves of displacement since the US invasion. Many fled as the Islamic State took over the city in January 2014. Those who stayed were later uprooted in the battle to retake the city in June.
They became some of the 3.3 million people who have been displaced in Iraq since the conflict with the Islamic State began.
With more than a million more expected to be displaced with the pending battle for the Islamic State-controlled city of Mosul, the Iraqi government is attempting to repopulate cities such as Fallujah as fast as it can.
But it is a task fraught with sensitivities. Security officials say they fear militants may sneak back in with returning families, while the conflict has split tribes and communities, and deepened sectarian divisions.
Local officials say that the limited numbers returning were because of organisational issues and the process would speed up. Two buses were provided for returning families on Saturday, but one travelled through the town empty.
Eissa al-Eissawi, the head of Fallujah’s local council, said 17 families had been allowed back to Fallujah by the end of Saturday – though three were later ejected after family members were accused of having links to Islamic State.
Some of the handful who returned found their houses had been lived in by strangers, others found them destroyed.
After entering his house for the first time in more than two and a half years, Shakeeb Abdulmohsen, 45, picked up a picture of two toddlers resting on a side table in his sitting room. “This doesn’t belong to me,” he said.
His wife, Shafa Nouri, pointed to a pushchair in the hall. “This isn’t ours,” she said.
When they left three years ago, her family had not expected to have been gone so long. Her six-year-old son clung to her leg.
“Do you remember riding your bike here?” she asked. “You remember?” He shook his head.