Tens of thousands of Iraqis uprooted by the Islamic State group are now returning home after a string of Iraqi government victories in Anbar province, but the United Nations is warning civilians may be returning too soon as much of "liberated" Iraq is still dangerous, littered with roadside bombs and bobby-trapped explosives.
Outside al-Salam camp in southern Baghdad, one of the latest waves of returnees prepares to make the journey back to Ramadi nearly five months after the city was declared fully liberated. More than a hundred families were packed into dozens of trucks, buses and cars along the dirt road at the camp's main entrance early Thursday morning. Some families said they are eager to return home since receiving word their neighborhoods have been liberated and secured, but others preparing to make the journey say they are leaving the camp because they no longer feel safe.
A mortar attack on the camp for displaced people – the largest in Baghdad that at its height sheltered nearly 2,000 families – wounded eight and killed four Wednesday, including two children. It was the third such attack in the past three months. Iraqi security officials at the camp refused to identify what groups were suspected to be behind the attacks, but said they were likely aimed at stoking sectarian tensions. The camp's residents, like most displaced Iraqis, are almost all Sunni. The Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to brief the press.
Sabreen Jameed and her husband were packing their three young children into a truck loaded with a water tank, cooking pots and a makeshift tent to begin the drive back to Anbar province.
"This was a safe place until the mortar attacks," Ms. Jameed said. "Since then we have been living in fear, last night none of us could even sleep."
Jameed and her family originally didn't want to return to Ramadi because running water and electricity hasn't yet been restored to their neighborhood and their home was badly damaged in the fight to retake the city. But the attacks on the camp have left her family with no other choice. She said they are bringing their tent with them because their home in Ramadi is uninhabitable.
"The children that were killed yesterday, they were the same age as my own kids," Jameed said.
But, as Jane Arraf reports for The Christian Science Monitor, life in Iraq's refugee camps provides few comforts:
Three million Iraqis have had to flee their homes inside the country since the IS incursion in 2014, joining more than a million citizens already displaced and 250,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq. Although the humanitarian response in Iraq is one of the biggest aid efforts in the world, thousands of displaced families swelter under 110 degree heat, with little water and few toilets, in desert camps just an hour’s drive from Baghdad.
Relief officials say the lack of aid is symptomatic of an international aid system that not only is chronically underfunded but is ill-equipped to respond quickly or effectively in the conflict zones. They say many groups, including some of the largest, are unwilling to venture into the places they are needed most.
Bruno Geddo, the Iraq representative for the UN refugee agency, said he was concerned for the safety of families returning to Anbar province from al-Salam camp, most of whom said they were planning to go to Ramadi.
"Areas of Ramadi are still thought to be littered with improvised explosive devices and other explosive hazards," he said. "It is important that displaced families can freely make a choice about when they feel it is safe to return."
Since the mortar attacks began in May, the U.N says more than 480 families have returned to Anbar from al-Salam camp.
The al-Salam camp manager denied there is a link between the attacks and the increase in families leaving the camp.
"All of these families are very happy to return to their homes," said Hikmat Jassim Zadan, explaining that more people are now returning because services in Anbar's liberated towns and cities have begun to return.
Iraqi government forces have pushed IS out of a string of towns and cities in Anbar province over the past eight months. In February 2016, Ramadi was declared fully liberated by Iraqi and coalition forces and in June Iraqi forces closely backed by US-led coalition aircraft retook the city of Fallujah. IS still controls Iraq's second largest city of Mosul in Nineveh province.
The UN estimates that tens of thousands of civilians have safely returned to Anbar as services have returned and security has improved. Over the past six months nearly 120,000 people have returned to Anbar, according to data released by the International Organization for Migration. 3.3 million Iraqis remain displaced by violence, most from Anbar and Nineveh province.