How Falluja can't forget
But what happens after IS leaves town?
The troubled Iraqi city of Falluja has painful lessons.
As night falls on Falluja and darkness takes the edge off the blistering summer heat, Anas al-Janabi switches on the lights.
A creaky ferris wheel, with saucer-like gondolas in primary colours, starts to turn.
Below, customers begin to arrive, attracted by an oasis of coloured lights and booming music.
There are dodgems and spinning teacup rides. There’s popcorn and a bearded Smurf, shimmying like a bellydancer despite the heat and his bulky yellow costume.
Children don party hats and families take selfies - relaxed moments in a city that has been on edge for most of the past 14 years.
But there’s a tentative air to it all. The children laugh and run but their parents seem wary.
Perhaps it’s the memories of 2014 when Falluja became the first city to fall to so-called Islamic State.
After a year of widespread protests across the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, often put down with violence by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, Falluja fell to an assortment of local tribal fighters and members of IS.
The group found themselves in control of, among other things, a newly built funfair.
Despite their reputation for brutally enforced austerity, IS were happy to use Falluja’s fairground for their own ends.
In September 2015 the group released pictures purporting to show the “grand opening”. The images were supposed to show happy normality within the self-declared caliphate.
“But there was no music,” says the owner Anas al-Janabi. “Only slogans.”
IS established a media centre and court on the premises, he says. Both were later targeted in airstrikes.
The entrepreneur had spent a year, and $1.4m (£1.1m), getting his fairground ready in 2013. It was bad timing.
“We barely managed to get the business started when Daesh took over,” he says, using the common Arabic acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant - Isis or Isil.
Two years later, in 2016, IS were driven out of Falluja by the Iraqi army. Anas could finally return to the city but his precious fairground had not been spared by IS.
“When they left, they burned down the café and the area was completely flattened,” says Anas.
Now, with most of the city’s inhabitants back, Anas says he’s on a mission to cheer up people who have endured terrible suffering. The funfair re-opened in May and families are starting to come back.
“They have forgotten what joy means,” says Anas, surveying his handiwork.
“By the grace of God, happiness will return to Falluja and its decent people.”
But he understands why the crowds are a little thin - why customers keep glancing over their shoulders. A month ago, while the fairground was packed, a bomb exploded nearby. No-one was killed, but the impact on business was immediate. Anas has been offering discounts and prizes in an effort to lure people back.
“We can say that Daesh is finished, but we still feel fear,” says Sahira Karim, visiting the fairground with her husband Raif and her grandson, Mohammed.
Sitting quietly beside his grandmother, eight-year old Mohammed lacks the carefree demeanour of the children all around him. His cheeks, temple and the bridge of his nose are scarred and he rests a badly damaged left hand on the table. He appears to have lost all sensation in the fingers.
When he gets up and walks, it is with the studied concentration of someone still getting used to living with a prosthetic.
Sahira tells how he was playing in the garden, early in 2014, when an artillery round exploded, inflicting terrible injuries. Doctors amputated Mohammed’s right leg. He still suffers nightmares.
Sahira is mentally scarred too. She lives in a state of constant anxiety, feels nervous at the park, and particularly hates checkpoints. The legacy of IS runs deep.
“Frankly, fear is inside my heart. I always feel something will happen. This is what they left behind.”
When government forces re-entered Falluja in June 2016, they uncovered evidence of the group’s reign of fear.
In makeshift prisons, they found tiny metal cages in windowless rooms, where prisoners were kept in cramped, filthy conditions.
In some cages, prisoners had been forced to stand, or kneel.
There were signs of torture, and documents which suggested people had been jailed for smoking or violating the self-declared caliphate’s strict dress code.
Accounts of life in Falluja during the IS years are hard to come by. Those who stayed in the city during the group’s two-and-a-half years in charge give guarded accounts, coloured by what they think government officials, or journalists, want to hear.
At first, it seems, the new masters behaved well, told people not to be afraid and said they were there to help. After two years of increasingly bitter relations with the government in Baghdad, many were willing to give the men in masks a chance.
In this conservative, Sunni city, the notion of a state governed along stricter religious lines was not unwelcome to some residents.
In fact, some Fallujis even celebrated the arrival of IS, calling it “the Islamic Conquest”.
But the honeymoon didn’t last long, as the jihadists sought to impose their increasingly medieval vision.
Rules against smoking and Western-style haircuts were rigorously enforced. Women were told to stay at home unless accompanied by a male relative.
Stories emerged of beheadings in the main market. Disloyal clerics and former policemen were particular targets.
And as the war with the government in Baghdad intensified, IS introduced conscription.
Huge numbers of people fled, scattering to other Iraqi cities or to camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) on the desert fringes of the Euphrates valley.
Local businessman Abdul Rahman Modhan went to the Kurdish city of Irbil, only returning once government control had been re-established.
He vividly remembers the days leading up to the arrival of IS in Falluja.
Months of unrest throughout Anbar province had turned into armed clashes, pitting Shia-dominated security forces against Sunni tribal militias. The government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered its forces to withdraw, ostensibly to calm the situation.
Abdul Rahman says local people pleaded with the police to stay, even offering to help protect the city. But the officers stripped off their uniforms, laid down their weapons and left. It was a foretaste of what would happen, five months later, in Mosul.
For a couple of days, Abdul Rahman says, Falluja seemed to be in the hands of teenagers. But it wasn’t long before the city’s new masters made their first appearance.
“We noticed that masked people came to the city and took over the police stations. We started to see them in the streets. Within two days, they controlled everything in the city.”
The jihadists were dour, and taciturn.
“It wasn’t easy to talk to them. If you spoke to them, they gave you very short answers. Yes. No. Inshallah [God willing].”
Abdul Rahman recalls the moment he decided it was time to go. He’d been watching militants digging up streets and laying explosives.
He asked one of the gunmen what would happen if one of the buried bombs went off prematurely.
“He answered me, laughing, and said you’ll go to heaven. That afternoon, I collected my things, put my family in my car and left the city. For three years.”
A short drive south from the centre of town, under police escort, brings us to the suburb of Shuhada. It’s a dusty, almost deserted place, full of unmade roads, potholes and wrecked buildings.
Falluja has fared better than some other cities caught up in the government’s battle with IS.
After taking back nearby Ramadi, in February 2016, Iraqi forces surrounded Falluja and began capturing nearby villages at the end of May.
A month later, the operation was over.
The militants didn’t fight to the death in Falluja, as they did later in Mosul. Many IS leaders fled the city, with their families. Some made it to other parts of the self-declared caliphate. Others were hit by airstrikes as they headed out into the desert.
But if the city wasn’t levelled, it certainly took a battering, and nowhere more so than Shuhada, scene of the worst fighting. No building is unscathed. Many have been flattened.
Here and there, despite the heat, people are rebuilding their homes.
It feels like a lonely business.
Ahmad and Mahmud Hussein have been working on the family home since February. When he and his family returned from Suleimaniya in November 2016, after three years away, they found the house looted and burned. The first floor had been wrecked by an explosion which destroyed the house next door.
Thanks to funds from a Norwegian charity, he’s able to afford a team of plasterers, who are putting the final touches to several downstairs rooms.
But his extended family of 11 is fed up with living in rented accommodation. Ahmad is growing impatient.
“It’s very hard, especially when I have no money,” he tells me. “If the government paid compensation, that would help. But there’s destruction everywhere and the government says it doesn’t have any money. Because of the war.”
The government’s titanic struggle against IS, coupled with a long-running budget crisis, have left Iraq’s coffers dangerously empty. There’s not much to spare for reconstruction, leaving thousands of people like Ahmad and Mahmud to fend for themselves, with a bit of international assistance.
The UN Development Programme says at least 15,000 homes have been damaged in Falluja and estimates it will take another 18 months to repair them. It has put aside $2,000 for each house, but in a report earlier this month, it said only 78 homes had been rehabilitated so far.
“I feel angry,” Ahmad says. “I waited for the government to help, but I got nothing.”
Outside the Wahida (Unity) mosque, after Friday prayers, the city’s hard-pressed mayor, Issa al-Issawi, is surrounded by frustrated locals, and forced to field a barrage of questions.
“The government should support us. There’s no opportunity, no work.”
“No-one’s compensating us. How can we rebuild our houses?”
“There’s no electricity. No water. How can we live?”
In fact, the city’s largest water treatment plant, al-Azrakiya, reopened in June. In theory, nearly two-thirds of the city now has access to safe water.
UN experts had to remove unexploded devices from 40,000 sq metres of land.
But a year after the fighting ended, electricity is rationed to 10 hours per day and there are problems with distribution. Falluja hums to the sound of generators.
There are other grievances.
“The army’s been occupying my house for the past ten months.”
“We are under collective punishment by the government.”
“We don’t like Baghdad. But let us live here!”
The notion that Falluja is being punished by the central government for the sin of rebellion is a common thread. Time and time again, people talk about feeling trapped by the military checkpoints that still ring the city.
The most notorious, Suqoor, sits astride the main highway just east of the city, blocking the way to Baghdad, which ought to be less than an hour’s drive away.
It’s a place of gridlock, frayed tempers and occasional danger.
On the Baghdad side, trucks carrying cement, bricks and other building materials line up, waiting for clearance. Most of them will drive on past Falluja to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, which was much more badly damaged in last year’s fighting.
But it’s on the Falluja side of Suqoor that the real problems lie. Almost no one from the city is allowed to drive through. Anyone hoping to reach Baghdad must walk to the checkpoint, in searing heat, present papers and hope that the soldiers on duty are in an indulgent mood.
The lingering threat posed by suicide bombers makes the soldiers twitchy and hostile.
Days before our arrival, a double suicide attack in nearby Garma killed eight soldiers and pro-government militiamen.
And just after we left, three policemen on duty at the Halabsa checkpoint, just west of Falluja, were killed by a car bomb.
The high levels of paranoia at checkpoints are understandable. No-one wants to be the officer responsible for allowing a would-be bomber to make it to Baghdad.
But the result, for tens of thousands of law-abiding Fallujis, more than a year after the jihadists were driven out, is painful to watch.
“I spent seven hours at the checkpoint,” says one Friday worshipper, “trying to get my sick relative out.”
“We’re living in a prison,” says another.
This disruption, coupled with a lack of investment and the local government’s reluctance to reopen Falluja’s main industrial zone, has led to dangerously high levels of unemployment.
The city's young must be found something to do.
Even in the early evening, the mercury in Falluja is still at 40C, and the city’s young men cool off on the banks of the Euphrates.
Using the sawn-off trunk of a palm tree as a springboard, they hurl themselves, some fully-clothed, into the grey-green river.
If you followed the river upstream - beyond the cities of Ramadi, Hit and Haditha - you’d find the dwindling heartland of the so-called Islamic State.
The border town of Qaim is one of the jihadists’ last strongholds in Iraq and the only place where IS still controls the border with Syria. In 2014, its jubilant fighters made a very public show of erasing the old frontier, a product of the Anglo French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.
Beyond Qaim, the river leads on to the Syrian battlefields of Deir al-Zour and, finally, Raqqa.
From the air, it’s a narrow but unbroken ribbon of green, weaving through the inhospitable wastes of western Iraq and eastern Syria.
But here in Falluja, on the river bank, beyond the laughter and the splashing bodies, are reminders of the city’s traumatic recent past.
Picked out against the setting sun is the broken silhouette of the "English bridge", built during the British mandate of the 1920s.
Sections of its green metal structure are semi-submerged. Locals say the bridge was blown up by IS fighters during their retreat from the city last year.
Thirteen years ago, this bridge was briefly the most notorious place in Iraq.
On 31 March 2004, four American contractors from the private military company Blackwater were ambushed and killed nearby.
With echoes of an attack on US soldiers in Somalia a decade earlier, there were gruesome scenes as the Americans were dragged from their burning vehicle, beaten to death and dragged through the streets.
With crowds celebrating wildly, two charred bodies were later strung up from the English bridge.
As far as the US-led coalition was concerned, Falluja was fast becoming the heart of darkness.
It hadn’t started out that way. When the Americans arrived, early in April 2003, Abdul Rahman Modhan remembers soldiers handing out sweets, asking: “Is it safe?”
Anbar province had fallen without a fight.
But Falluja was home to many of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s army and intelligence officers, as well as members of his ruling Baath Party.
In May 2003, President George W Bush’s special envoy for Iraq, Paul Bremer, newly arrived in the country, signed orders banning the Baath Party and dismantling the army.
Falluja was stunned.
“It affected thousands of families,” says Abdul Rahman. “Fathers and brothers came and said: ‘I’ve lost my job, my salary.’”
With popular opinion quickly turning against the invaders, the security situation started to deteriorate.
Coalition commanders came to regard the Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, as the baddest of all Iraqi badlands.
As fighting raged, two of the most notorious figures in Iraq were often in Falluja.
One, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was already bombing and beheading his way to the top of Washington’s most wanted list in Iraq.
His violent jihadist group, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), had started attacking American targets just months after the invasion. In May 2004, in the first grainy video of its kind, he was seen beheading a 26-year old American hostage, Nick Berg.
The other dangerous militant was, for the time being, less well-known.
When they arrested him in April, just outside Falluja, the Americans knew him only as 33-year old Awad Ibrahim al-Badry. He was held for 10 months before being released as a “low level prisoner”.
Ten years later, in July 2014, he ascended the steps inside Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri, and declared himself leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
By now, he was better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But back in 2004, it was Zarqawi, not Baghdadi, who preoccupied the US-led coalition.
For a while, his group’s religious fundamentalism had some appeal in conservative Falluja. Piety was already a way of life for many in the City of Mosques. Men were bearded, women wore the hijab. The sale of alcohol was prohibited.
Falluja was not a mixed city, like Mosul. It was almost entirely Sunni, and it was burning with resentment.
After the four Blackwater contractors were killed, the Americans launched two major assaults on Falluja, designed to root out Zarqawi’s increasingly successful group.
The second, Operation Phantom Fury, at the end of 2004, was described by the US military as some of the heaviest urban warfare seen since Vietnam.
Most of Falluja’s population fled ahead of the battle, but hundreds who remained were killed. The city was devastated.
Of Falluja’s 200 mosques, dozens were damaged or destroyed.
As many as 1,500 insurgents were killed but it would be another 18 months before the AQI leader would be killed by an airstrike while hiding out in a village north of Baghdad.
Falluja was finally retaken, but it took months for people to return to their shattered city. And when they did they found a situation still fraught with danger.
“At first, al-Qaida only killed Americans,” says Abdul Rahman. “But then they started to kill us.”
Local politicians and religious leaders were assassinated. Kidnap for ransom was suddenly commonplace.
Eventually, the people of Anbar turned against AQI. Sunni tribes joined forces with the Americans. The Anbar Awakening marked the end of AQI’s reign of terror.
But the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad was deeply suspicious of the movement, which soon had tens of thousands of Sunnis – so-called Sons of Iraq - under arms.
After the Americans left Iraq, in 2011, the government stopped paying the Sons of Iraq. Coupled with a wider purge of Sunnis in government, it had an inevitable effect - Sunnis once again felt they had no place in post-Saddam Iraq.
In Falluja, Abdul Rahman watched as history repeated itself.
Sunni officials were sacked and replaced by Shia. A Shia officer was put in charge of the Falluja police.
And there was a fresh wave of kidnapping, believed to be by pro-government militias.
In the popular unrest which followed, says Abdul Rahman, a new generation of jihadists sensed an opportunity. Just as AQI had done the previous decade.
They became Islamic State.
For those who’ve returned to the city in recent months, life in Falluja is hard enough.
But out in the desert, beyond the city limits, are thousands of people who still can’t go back.
No-one wants them.
On the southern shore of Lake Habbaniya, thousands of people displaced during the war against Islamic State are living in a fly-blown Saddam-era tourist village.
As the battle against IS has moved from city to city – causing some to flee their homes, others to return - so the population of this and other camps has fluctuated.
But one group remains - the families of those accused of working for, or with, IS.
Away from the main camp, there’s an area reserved for people from the agricultural village of Saqlawiya, just a few miles north-west of Falluja.
Row upon row of white canvas tents flap in the hot desert wind. Children tussle for handouts. Either side of a wide, dusty avenue, people fill buckets from raised water tanks.
Saqlawiya gained a reputation as an IS stronghold. The fighting there in May and June of last year was particularly intense.
The people living here have watched others going home and wonder when it will be their turn to follow.
Badriya Hassan has been here with her extended family – 22 people in all – for 14 months.
They stayed in Saqlawiya under IS rule, only fleeing at the start of the government offensive last year.
With mainly Shia militias now controlling her village, she’s been warned not to go back.
Her sons have been accused of belonging to IS.
“They’re waiting to take revenge on us in Saqlawiya,” Badriya says.
“We phoned the man in charge. We said give us proof that any of my sons held a machine gun or dressed in the Kandahar [Taliban] style.”
The young men, seated around her in the tent, all profess their innocence.
One of them, Mohammed, shows off two laminated permits, both secured in the last few months, which appear to show he’s in the clear. They’re addressed to all security services and, crucially, checkpoints:
“The Falluja crime, intelligence and counterterrorism units have already been approached with regards to this individual. For the time being, he's not wanted by any security service.”
Waving her tattooed hands in the air, Badriya makes a blood-curdling pledge about her sons.
“If you have any proof they’re Daesh, we’re ready to slaughter them.”
It’s hard to know the precise nature of the charges against her sons or whether they’re merely a cover for something more petty - local or tribal rivalries or perhaps a dispute over land or property.
Mohammed says three vehicles have already been confiscated and now there are people in Saqlawiya who are looking to take his house.
The authorities tend to regard anyone who stayed in IS territory as a likely collaborator.
“Everyone? They can’t say that,” insists Mohammed. “Thousands of people stayed.”
Pointing to a scar on his forehead, he says he was beaten up by IS members in 2015 after a dispute involving his two sisters.
Another son, Haitham, has made it back to Saqlawiya, apparently without incident.
But other family members, including a cousin, have been picked up at checkpoints and not heard from since.
The missing. Everyone here seems to know someone who has disappeared.
Arriving in Habbaniya, we were immediately surrounded by people who spoke of relatives being detained at checkpoints and then simply vanishing.
Most said this was the work of the so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces, mainly Shia militias who were involved in last year’s recapture of Falluja, and who still play a security role in the area.
Some say Sunnis are still being picked up in revenge for the June 2014 IS massacre of at least 1,500 Shia air force cadets at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit.
The people of Saqlawiya have particular reason to be fearful.
When PMF fighters captured the village in May 2016, they arrested 1,200 men. Around half were released, thanks to the intervention of the local police. Many of them ended up in hospital, bearing signs of severe physical abuse.
But 643 are still missing.
Following pressure from human rights groups, Iraq’s current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi set up a government committee to investigate what happened. More than a year on, there’s been no news.
“The fact that over a year later we don’t have a single answer from the authorities is to me deeply disturbing,” says Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Shia armed groups, Wille says, are committing abuses against Sunni communities with complete impunity.
“It’s yet another sign that things really haven't changed in terms of trying to end this era of impunity,” she says. “The very impunity that pushed a lot of young men to join Isis in the first place.”
HRW has also highlighted administrative measures being taken to prevent so-called “Isis families” from going home.
A decree, issued immediately after the recapture of Falluja, said that people who “promoted” IS would not be allowed to return “until their charges are reviewed”.
But when will this be?
The authorities argue that it’s important to know who was and who wasn’t involved with IS. It’s extremely likely that IS sympathisers, including men with blood on their hands, remain in the camps.
When Falluja fell, some of those who’d thrown in their lot with the militants hoped to disappear back into the general population.
Other measures taken by local councils in recaptured areas have included orders to demolish homes of those involved in terrorist activities.
Images of revenge killings of IS members in Mosul caused outrage in July. When pictures of abuses by an Iraqi special forces unit were published, Prime Minister Abadi said those responsible would face prosecution.
But Wille says it’s the camps, where people languish for months, perhaps years, under clouds of suspicion, that pose a greater long-term danger.
“What I fear is that these camps are going to be the key breeding ground for whatever Isis looks like tomorrow,” says Wille.
Learning a lesson
In the centre of Falluja, close to the spot where IS militants hanged an Iraqi soldier in 2015, a billboard warns residents to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
“If we want to create an educated and secure society,” it reads, above silhouettes of a masked man wielding a rocket propelled grenade and a hand brandishing a knife, “it’s our duty to confront those who displaced us, destroyed our cities and tried to poison the ideas of our youth.”
At Friday prayers, the imam’s message is the same.
“Our ship will sink again if we go back to the same ideology,” he tells his congregation, without ever mentioning Islamic State by name.
In Falluja, clerics have risked their lives talking this way. In November 2005, the grand mufti of the city, Sheikh Hamza al-Issawi, was shot dead outside the Wahida mosque.
His killers, part of Zarqawi’s al-Qaida network, were determined to punish him for his refusal to condemn the Americans. Other moderate clerics, fearing for their lives, fled the city.
Ten years later, Islamic State supporters demolished the mufti’s shrine and moved his body. Even in death, it seemed, his reputation seemed to threaten their authority.
Not surprisingly, no-one living in the city today is willing to defend the record of IS. Far from addressing Sunni grievances, the group merely ushered in another dismal chapter in Falluja’s grim recent history.
“We don’t want to lose our city again,” says the businessman Abdul Rahman Modhan.
But since 2003, Falluja has fallen out of government control, twice, when the authorities in Baghdad – first American, then Iraqi – felt they could ignore the interests of Iraq’s Sunni minority.
Sunnis felt they were being punished, first for their allegiance to the former dictator, Saddam Hussein, and later for the willingness of some tribal leaders to harbour the violent jihadists of al-Qaida and Islamic State.
Falluja is only 40 miles west of Baghdad, but a gulf of suspicion and resentment has separated the two cities for 14 years. Unless it’s bridged, another violent upheaval cannot be ruled out.
Mayor Al-Issawi is candid about the danger.
“There was a gap between the government and the people of Falluja in particular and Anbar in general,” he says. “This is one reason why Falluja fell to Daesh.”
“The gap still hasn’t closed completely, but we are making progress to restore trust and achieve security.”
Could his city throw its lot in with another insurgency? He pauses for thought, and when he answers it doesn’t sound like a slogan.
“The people of Falluja have learned their lesson, and suffered a lot, so I don’t think they’ll co-operate with any such insurgency.”
For now, the city seems intent on picking up the pieces and making life as tolerable as possible. For all the lingering hardship, the bustling streets are a far cry from the liberated ghost town of last year.
“When we arrived, there was not one civilian in Falluja. Not one,” says Lise Grande, from the UN Development Programme.
“Security had to be restored, rubble and debris cleared and the transport, water, sewage and electrical grids all had to be repaired as quickly as possible.
“Today it is a city being reborn.”
But knitting together the country’s torn sectarian fabric is an even bigger job. Every round of conflict tears it a little bit more, and since 2003, the periods of respite have rarely been long enough.
Many believe Prime Minister Abadi has a less sectarian agenda than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.
But he has rejected accusations of human rights violations by members of the PMF.
In August, he dismissed a call from the powerful Shia cleric and former militia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, to disband the PMF.
The caliphate, declared by IS with such violence and ferocious enthusiasm three years ago, is vanishing.
The militants have been picked off in one city after another.
But even when the last stronghold has fallen, few people think the struggle is over.
You can destroy a caliphate, kill its self-proclaimed leaders, restore borders and, if there’s any money left, rebuild cities.
But the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have so many drivers – sectarian, political, criminal and regional – that both countries will remain breeding grounds for violent opposition until this toxic mix is addressed.
A recent spate of IS bombings in Baghdad suggested that the group’s loss of territory is unlikely to kill off its ability to cause mayhem elsewhere.
When do you think the war will end, I ask an officer over tea and our own protracted wait to pass through the Suqoor checkpoint
“It’s never going to end,” he replies.
Hardly surprising, then, that Anas al-Janabi’s customers keep a wary look out, under the bright lights of his shiny new Falluja fairground.