Returning to ruins, displaced Iraqi farmers find help to rebuild
Displaced for two years following ISIS advance in 2014, returning Iraqis in Yathrib benefit from irrigation and home rehabilitation projects to reestablish their farms.
Matra Nsayef harvests okra at her farm in the village of Yathrib, Iraq.
© UNHCR/Rasheed Hussein Rasheed
“When we left, the oranges on the trees were this big,” says Matra, cradling the memory of the fruit in two weather-beaten hands as she describes the night they fled their farm. “When we returned, the trees were all burned and nothing was left.”
Matra, 60, escaped along with her family and most of the other villagers of Yathrib – a farming community some 50 kilometres north of Baghdad – when ISIS fighters swept through the area in mid-2014.
“It was a tough night,” she says. “They were firing rockets at us. We managed to flee, but it was a painful night.”
After being displaced for two years, she was finally able to return to the farm in 2016, but was met with a scene of devastation. “Everything was different,” Matra said. “I came back and the farm was burned and everything was gone, including our clothes.”
"Farming is my life."
Where once they had produced enough oranges, pomegranates, grapes and other products to support a simple yet comfortable lifestyle, the damage done to their home and farmland by the retreating militants meant they were no longer able produce enough to sell.
“Farming is my life, we can’t survive without it. We harvest and sell. But now I just plant to eat,” Matra explains. The small apartment she shared with her husband attached to the main farmhouse had been gutted by fire, forcing them to sleep in a shared room with half a dozen other family members.
It was a similar story for her neighbour Kutaiba, 22, whose family owns a 4,000 square metre plot of vines and apple and pomegranate trees. After being displaced for two years to the nearby city of Samarra, relying on his father’s teaching salary to get by, they came back to find the farm he had lived on all his life destroyed.
“When I returned, it was heart-breaking,” Kutaiba said. “The farm was ruined and the house was burned down.” They set about the labourious and costly work of rebuilding, starting with the farm that provides their livelihood before moving on to the house, repairing one room at a time.
“For us, the farm is everything,” Kutaiba explains. “Replanting takes time. This is the first year [since 2016] that we have had a harvest. Life was better before. We have lost a lot – money, homes, cars, cows – life is more expensive now, and more difficult.”
Of the estimated 12,000 residents from Yathrib that were displaced in 2014, some 8,500 have so far returned to the area. In the country as a whole, of nearly 6 million people internally displaced by the conflict since 2014, some 4.3 million have returned to their homes while around 1.6 million remain currently displaced.
Across Iraq, UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – is working to provide assistance both to displaced people and those returning home. In Yathrib, it has funded a number of priority projects including installing new electricity transformers, rehabilitating water treatment plants and repairing road bridges and the area’s main irrigation canal.
"The repairs were a big help."
“Water is vital to our lives. Without it, all the [replanted] trees would have died,” Kutaiba says. “The irrigation was destroyed during the war, so the repairs were a big help in getting us back in business.”
UNHCR is also helping individuals such a Matra with repairs to their damaged homes, replacing windows and doors and plastering and painting damaged walls. The scale of the rebuilding task is huge, as evidenced by the rows of crumpled houses that were destroyed by the militants as they left. But for the returning residents, there is at least a glimmer of hope.
“This is my land, and the land of my ancestors. Of course I am very attached to it,” Kutaiba explains. “We were one of the first families to return, because we wanted to live with dignity on our own land, even though everything was destroyed. I can’t describe the feeling when we came back, [and now] I look forward to a better future.”