Nowhere to Turn: Sunnis Fleeing ISIS Seek Sanctuary

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Balasim, a Sunni villager, holds a young boy as he stands in a burned-out house in Albu Ajeel, a village in Salahaddin Province. The boy’s mother was killed after stepping on a land mine as she tried to flee an ISIS-controlled area near Hawija, north of Baghdad. Balasim carried the boy in his arms for the entire journey to Albu Ajeel, and he was photographed shortly after reaching the relative safety of this village. Moises Saman/Magnum

Not long ago, Lake Habbaniya was a place for weddings and honeymoons, beach parties and family picnics. Just a few hours’ drive west of Baghdad, the lake became a top vacation spot after a luxury resort opened there in 1979, with tennis courts, fairground rides and lush gardens. For several years after the fall of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the resort was used as a refugee shelter, but in 2009 U.S.-led forces helped get it back into the tourism business. As recently as 2012, Jet Skis glided across the shimmering waters of Lake Habbaniya and Iraqi children played barefoot on the beach.

That seems hard to imagine now. The once-popular resort is in Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland: Anbar province, a former Al-Qaeda stronghold. Cities like Fallujah in Anbar were the scenes of the bloodiest battles between U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. In the first half of 2014, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) occupied much of Anbar; now Iraqi special forces are leading a campaign to reclaim it, with the backing of U.S. airstrikes. Lake Habbaniya lies between Fallujah, which has been controlled by ISIS since January 2014, and Ramadi, which Iraqi forces recaptured in December.

When photographer Moises Saman visited the Habbaniya Tourist Village in early February, about 4,000 Sunni families, including many from Ramadi, were living there in the crumbling six-floor hotel, and in abandoned chalets and tents on the beach. They have no running water, electricity or sewage system and are dependent on humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for emergency food assistance. Long gone are the days of boating and jet-skiing; the lake now provides drinking water to the refugee camp, with water pumped into a purification station rehabilitated by the ICRC.

The plight of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing ISIS has captured the world’s attention in recent months; Iraqis and Syrians from war-torn areas have squeezed into overcrowded boats and made the dangerous crossing to Europe’s southern shores. But even more Syrians and Iraqis are stranded in their own countries, uprooted from their homes in huge numbers, with nowhere to go.

According to figures from the International Organization for Migration, between January 2014 and August 2015, 3.2 million Iraqis were internally displaced. More than 40 percent, or 1.3 million, of them have fled from ISIS in Sunni-majority Anbar province. Most of them are too poor to afford the journey to Europe; others are unable to travel after suffering injuries in the recent conflict with ISIS or in the fighting that began after the 2003 invasion. Some have been displaced for nearly two years, living in camps where they cannot work, study or rebuild their lives.

Saman, who now lives in Barcelona, Spain, has spent a great deal of time working in Iraq over the past 14 years. He returned recently to document the new wave of Sunni displacement, visiting affected areas in the provinces of Baghdad, Anbar and Salahaddin. Saman wanted to bring attention to Iraq’s Sunni community, whose suffering during the country’s long periods of conflict and at the hands of ISIS has received relatively little attention—in part because other communities tend to regard Sunnis with suspicion. (Sunni Arabs belong, at least nominally, to the same branch of Islam as ISIS militants.)

“There’s a narrative that a lot of the Sunni community supports ISIS, but it’s really not that simple,” Saman says. Many of the people he met had relatives who had been killed by ISIS, while others used to be in the police or the army, so they were ISIS targets. “Most of the people in these camps fled because they did not want anything to do with ISIS.”

Few Sunni Arabs are willing to seek refuge in the Shiite-majority south, and even the Iraqi capital remains divided, with many Sunnis afraid of venturing out of their Baghdad neighborhoods, fearing they will be kidnapped or arrested.

In the areas Saman visited, many Sunnis said the mostly Shiite government in Baghdad does not represent them. They told him they felt marginalized in their own country. These are the same grievances that ISIS has been able to easily exploit—and they are unlikely to be resolved even if Iraqi forces make military gains in Anbar. In the meantime, most of the displaced Sunnis simply dream of one day going home. But with their hometowns still on the front line (in Fallujah), or reduced to little more than rubble (in Ramadi), many have nowhere to go.

02_18_sunni_SS_02 A Sunni family who has recently arrived from Fallujah prepares to build a tent inside the Markazi camp, located about two miles from the Bzeibiz bridge over the Euphrates River, the main access point between Anbar and Baghdad provinces. The International Committee of the Red Cross distributes food parcels, cooking utensils and heaters to help families cope. As displacement continues, the organization is rapidly responding with more humanitarian relief. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_03 A man sells cotton candy in the Sunni-majority neighborhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad, now a temporary home for thousands of Sunnis displaced by fighting between ISIS and Iraqi forces. More than 10 percent of all Iraqis have fled their homes but remain stuck within the country. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_04 The Habbaniya Tourist Village, a former vacation spot 50 miles west of Baghdad, is now home to some 4,000 families from Ramadi and Fallujah who have fled the conflict with ISIS. The resort lacks basic infrastructure: People live here with no electricity, running water or sewage system. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_05 Siham Sabah Mozin, 65, lies inside a tent next to her 6-year-old grandson, Qusay. They are among 4,000 families who have fled ISIS-controlled areas to shelter in a former resort complex by Lake Habbaniya, a few hours drive from Baghdad. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_06 Nazhan Mohamed, 36, a shepherd with Down syndrome from the Sunni village of Albu Ajeel, lost his eyesight in 2005 during a violent encounter with American troops who mistook him for a suicide bomber. Nazhan and his family fled their village last year when ISIS captured Tikrit and the surrounding areas. When they returned home in January, Nazhan and his family found that their home had partially burned down and their village mostly destroyed. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_07 Wassan Hassan, 30, sits in a wheelchair near her 10-year-old son Rami, inside a makeshift trailer home. After ISIS seized Ramadi last spring, Wassan and her family fled to the predominantly Sunni Adhamiya district of Baghdad. Wassan has been in a wheelchair since losing both her legs in December 2006; a rocket hit her Ramadi home during fighting between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents, killing her sister. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_09 Men from a Sunni family survey the damage to their family home in Albu Ajeel, a village in Salahaddin Province, which was bombed and destroyed by ISIS militants as they retreated from the area last year. Many families have returned to find their houses reduced to rubble. To help returnees cope, the International Committee of the Red Cross has distributed food parcels and helped restore the water supply to Albu Ajeel residents. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_10 A girl stands between tents in the Markazi camp in Anbar Province. Most of the camp’s residents fled fighting between ISIS and Iraqi special forces in Ramadi. According to the U.N. refugee agency, which opened the camp in October, more than 250,000 civilians have fled Ramadi since April 2015, but most of them have remained inside Anbar Province itself—living in schools and unfinished buildings or with relatives. Few families in the camp have any source of income, and many are in desperate need of health care and other aid. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_11 Children play in the predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiya in East-Central Baghdad. Hundreds of Sunni families have fled areas under ISIS control and sought temporary shelter here, but many of them still fear sectarian violence in the Iraqi capital. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_12 A hallway inside the Habbaniya Tourist Village hotel, once a luxury resort for Iraqi vacationers. In recent months, hundreds of displaced families have sought shelter in the former resort, which is located between the war-torn cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_13 Sara Adnan Mohamed, 10, draws a picture in the house she shares with her family, in the predominantly Sunni village of Albu Ajeel. The village of 20,000 residents lies on the outskirts of the city of Tikrit, in Salahaddin Province, that fell to ISIS militants in June 2014 and was recaptured by Iraqi special forces in April 2015. After being displaced for more than a year, Sara and her family returned to Albu Ajeel only to find their village mostly destroyed and their home partially burned down. Moises Saman/Magnum

02_18_sunni_SS_14 The Habbaniya Tourist Village used to be one of Iraq’s most popular vacation spots. Now, hundreds of families from Ramadi and Fallujah have sought shelter in the dilapidated buildings, relying on the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations for food and other relief items. Moises Saman/Magnum

Moises Saman is an American-Spanish documentary photographer and a member of Magnum Photos. His book on the Arab Spring, Discordia, was published in February 2016.