Despite booby traps, Iraqis risk all on return to Ramadi
Iraq's third-largest city has not been declared cleared by the government and dozens of returnees have been killed by IEDs.
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 29 (UNHCR) - Iraqi father-of-two Khairallah Farhan fled his home in Ramadi when it was overrun by extremists in 2015. But despite the fact that it was retaken by Iraqi forces at the end of last year, he is in no rush to go home.
Not only was his house severely damaged, but two close relatives who hurried home to rebuild their lives were killed by exploding booby-trap devices left behind by militants.
"I'm very cautious about returning. I will not rush back yet," says the 30-year-old, who is among 1,200 displaced Iraqis living at the sprawling Al Salam camp in the capital, Baghdad.
He is among thousands of people from Ramadi weighing the risks of returning home. The Iraqi government announced at the start of the year that it had re-taken the city from extremist forces, although it has not yet declared the city, Iraq's third largest, "clear" for return.
UN assessment teams found "staggering" destruction in the city. Thousands of buildings in Ramadi and its outskirts had been damaged, and the city was also littered with improvised explosive devices.
According to estimates, several dozen people have been killed in recent weeks since they returned to the city, which sprawls along the banks of the Euphrates River west of Baghdad. Having lost relatives to blasts, Farhad is looking for greater assurance before going home.
"If the government can declare the city safe and offer us help, we will return," he says.
The upsurge in casualties has prompted the Iraqi authorities to issue a temporary directive, telling civilians not to return for the time being - and to wait until the deadly booby traps and explosives in the city can be cleared.
Some 3.4 million Iraqis are internally displaced by the conflict. Despite the lingering hazards, many families are risking all to head home. Hikmat Jassim, manager at Al Salam camp, shows photographs taken days earlier on his cell phone of farewell ceremonies for families in the camp as they prepared to set off on the uncertain journey to the once-bustling city of nearly half a million residents.
"Around 200 families have left here to go back to Ramadi," he says. "We do not encourage them to go, but we do not prevent them from going either."
In fact, many departing families had been allowed to take their tents with them, if their homes had been damaged, and were given food parcels by well wishers.
The photos showed trucks lined up, laden with blankets and other basic necessities for the families, with people crying and being hugged on departure.
Amer, a father of 10, from Ramadi's Al Jamhuria neighbourhood, is among those who have returned to the city. "We celebrated leaving the camp," he said when UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, contacted him in the city by phone. "Everyone was very excited to return home. We were crying at the prospect of going back, we were so happy."
He returned to a house that was habitable, although the second story had been destroyed, leaving 16 family members to live crammed into two rooms. Amer has also reopened the small hardware shop that he ran. And, in a city that needs extensive rebuilding, he said business is brisk.
"My work is very good; better than before because every family wants cables for electricity, motors for fridges and other building materials."
While there was no power, leaving families to rely on generators, he said most services were functioning in his neighbourhood and schools were opening again. He has no regrets about returning.
By Caroline Gluck in Baghdad.