Why Iraqi boys and men are disappearing amid ISIS concerns

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A displaced man, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, carries a child in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani - RTX2XJIY

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ALISON STEWART: But first: For nearly three months, Iraqi forces backed by the U.S. have been fighting to retake the ISIS-held city of Mosul. The militants still hold much of the city and its nearly one million residents.

Almost 130,000 people have fled Mosul since the battle began. Security officials are now trying to harbor the displaced, while also containing the spread of ISIS. But the process of screening and detaining men and boys who have left to ensure they are not extremists is fraught and controversial.

From Northern Iraq, special correspondent Marcia Biggs and videographer Eric O’Connor report.

MARCIA BIGGS: It’s a slow and steady exodus, civilians fleeing the battle for Mosul. Those who make it to the relative safety of Iraqi checkpoints tell harrowing stories.

SAED GHAZI, Displaced Iraqi (through translator): A mortar landed on my house, destroyed it, and killed my wife. We had no place to bury her, and now our daughter has no mother.

MARCIA BIGGS: The danger of Mosul behind them, they are first screened by Iraqis, then boarded onto buses for a journey into the unknown.

WOMAN (through translator): The shelling destroyed us. All our houses are gone now. Nothing remains for us.

MARCIA BIGGS: Do you know where you’re going?

WOMAN (through translator): I don’t know, but they are saying that they are taking us to the tents.

MARCIA BIGGS: They’re heading to a handful of camps for internally displaced people here in Iraqi-held Kurdistan. It’s a long wait. They’re facing a bottleneck from previous buses as the newly arrived register and receive supplies, and, at every stage, more screening.

Both Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish authorities have a mandate to keep members of ISIS from escaping through the mass of civilians fleeing the battle, and they have gathered intelligence on tens of thousands of ISIS suspects, creating a database with a list of names. Everywhere we went in the camps, we heard the same story.

WOMAN (through translator): I only have one son. They took him 20 days ago. We don’t know where he is. He went to get gas and they just took him. He’s innocent.

MARCIA BIGGS: Aziza says she and her 18-year-old son, Radwan, escaped Mosul, only to be ripped apart by local authorities once they arrived at the camp.

WOMAN (through translator): Oh, my son. I feel safe here, but I feel sad because he’s not here. The tent is empty. It’s been 20 days since they took him. I’m cold and empty without him.

MARCIA BIGGS: This man wouldn’t let us show his face, but says his cousin was arrested, based on what he says was the word of an informer in the camp.

BELKIS WILLE, Human Rights Watch: In Mosul, we have got thousands of individuals being screened, subsequently being detained, and disappearing.

MARCIA BIGGS: Belkis Wille is with Human Rights Watch, based in Iraq.

BELKIS WILLE: Now, all of them might be in official detention facilities, and maybe the moment the operation is done, we will see a lot of these people released. But, for the moment, we don’t know that, and all their families know is that they have gone missing.

MARCIA BIGGS: General Najim al-Jabouri is one of Iraq’s top commanders in the battle for Mosul, and his men are the first line of screening for civilians coming out of ISIS control. They detain anyone who appears on the list, even though he knows some may not be hard-line is members.

GEN. NAJIM AL-JABOURI, Iraq: I hope the prime minister give amnesty to the majority of the people, join ISIS, but they not kill, they not involved in very bad thing. They just to took some salary to keep them and families from revenge of ISIS. You know, ISIS don’t have any mercy.

MARCIA BIGGS: They’re just trying to stay alive and feed their families.

GEN. NAJIM AL-JABOURI: Yes, yes.

MARCIA BIGGS: Is there ever anyone that’s on that list that you say he’s just someone who’s trying to get by, let’s let him go?

GEN. NAJIM AL-JABOURI: Yes, sure. Yes, sure. But the judge will decide that, not me. I fight in the field. Anyone stand in front of me and fight me, I kill him. But after the field, this the mission of the judge.

MARCIA BIGGS: We traveled south of Mosul to Qayyarah, where, under the black cloud of oil fires set by ISIS, we found one of those judges, whose job is to investigate the cases of ISIS suspects and prepare them for trial.

How many people are on the list? We heard 40,000?

AMER ABDULLAH KHODIR, Judge (through translator): No, there are more than 40,000 who are not arrested yet.

MARCIA BIGGS: How do you differentiate between someone who is just trying to make ends meet in occupied Mosul, and someone who is an ISIS terrorist?

AMER ABDULLAH KHODIR (through translator): We have people who are helping us identify the individuals who were just doing their job, without being members of ISIS.

BELKIS WILLE: The real question for us is, how do you get onto that list? It’s allegations that you are affiliated with ISIS, but they could be made by your neighbor, your neighbor who envies your land or your neighbor who had a feud with you for many years.

MARCIA BIGGS: The judge denies that charges can be based solely on witness testimony, but admits that the system is bogged down.

AMER ABDULLAH KHODIR (through translator): It will take a long time to complete these cases. In most of the cases, the victims’ bodies are missing. They were kidnapped by ISIS terrorists, killed and disappeared. We have to find the bodies, but this will prolong the investigations.

MARCIA BIGGS: For the families of those that languish in detention, it’s a reminder of abuses against Sunnis that took place last spring, when Iraqi forces retook Fallujah from ISIS, but then allowed Shia militias to control those villages.

BELKIS WILLE: We know the history of previous operations, and we know that hundreds of people have gone missing. We’re not saying let everybody go. What we’re saying is, there are simple things you can do to try and decrease the chance of abuse afterwards.

One of those things is informing family members of where their loved ones are. The other is putting out public numbers. Why have we not seen the authorities put out a single public number on how many people are being detained in this operation?

MARCIA BIGGS: This is your husband, Zaojek?

Back in the camp, 27-year-old Miad shows me the only picture she has of her husband, Ramy. She says they had been here for 10 days when he went to camp security to get permission for her to see a doctor. He never came back.

MIAD, Lives in Camp (through translator): The night that they arrested him, I waited up until midnight, but he didn’t come. I went to the camp manager. He said it’s a normal investigation, and he will be back soon, it will only take a couple of days. That was 17 days ago.

I remember they put his name in the database two times, and they didn’t find anything on him. He was cleared. He doesn’t have anything to do with ISIS.

MARCIA BIGGS: She’s here alone with her two children and her 80-year-old grandmother. Diagnosed with uterine cancer, she has special permission to go to her chemotherapy appointments, but like everyone else, is otherwise forbidden to leave the camp.

MIAD (through translator): I went to the camp security and he didn’t give me any information. They just told me, if he is innocent, we will bring him back to you. If he’s guilty, don’t ask about him.

MARCIA BIGGS: Halkwat Rafaat is in charge of security at the camps in this area, in total hosting almost 60,000 people.

Why they are not allowed to leave the camp?

HALKWAT RAFAAT, Iraq (through translator): Because they have been under is control for more than two years.

MARCIA BIGGS: And you are worried that maybe there may be ISIS fighters hiding in plaint sight?

HALKWAT RAFAAT (through translator): Of course they are.

MARCIA BIGGS: What do you say to the officials that say, we have got a real security problem; we can’t let people leave?

BELKIS WILLE: If the screening processes are not working, then improve the screening processes. But once someone’s been cleared through that process, it is unacceptable to be holding them in a camp that is essentially being used as a prison.

MARCIA BIGGS: Miad says she now wishes she had never left Mosul.

MIAD (through translator): I need my husband by my side. When I am sick, he takes care of the kids, and makes sure we have food. But now I have no one, only God and my two kids. My life here is very hard. If I had known they would arrest my husband, I never would have left my village.

MARCIA BIGGS: Some residents held out. Iraqi armed forces had cleared this village in North Mosul 20 days ago when we arrived, and the civilians here chose not to go to the camps. But now that the Iraqi army controls this area, checkpoints are everywhere, and no one goes in or out without special permission.

They say they’re grateful to be rid of ISIS, but say there is no clean water, no electricity, not enough food.

RAAFAT KHALIL SALAH, North Mosul Resident (through translator): We have received food only two times in the last two weeks. We need gas for the generators. We don’t want to go to the camps. We want to stay here to keep what is ours.

MARCIA BIGGS: Half-an-hour later, we were at a former ISIS bomb factory looking at some vehicles that ISIS left behind. We were hustled to a nearby home to wait out the shelling.

So we just received a mortar from around five to six kilometers away. The general believes that perhaps one of the civilians that saw us talking to all of the neighbors may have given information to ISIS that we were here, which is why we have received this mortar.

There is no way to know for sure if someone informed on us, but it is a reminder that, even in so-called liberated areas, there is still a very real war being fought. Those who choose to stay may keep their homes and their dignity, but they now live in a state of limbo between ISIS and the Iraqi army, and with that comes suspicion and danger.

Eight more rounds hit areas around us that afternoon. This local villager emerged from his home carrying a white flag and begging the army to let him take his family to the next village. He was told to stay in his home.

Back in the camp, Miad may be out of the line of fire, but she faces every day alone, no information, no answers.

MIAD (through translator): God willing, he will come back to us. I am not the only one. Too many others have been taken who have nothing to do with ISIS.

MARCIA BIGGS: For now, all she can do is wait.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs, outside Mosul, Northern Iraq.

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