Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are returning to villages and towns in northern Iraq's Ninawa Plains despite the shortage of basic services in the area, Iraqi officials tell Diyaruna.
Local residents were forced to flee when the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) overran large swathes of Ninawa Plains in the summer of 2014.
Stability has largely returned to al-Hamdaniya district, the largest urban area in Ninawa Plain, since Iraqi forces recaptured it in October 2016.
Waad Suleiman, 48, is among the thousands of residents who have returned.
“I came back with my family about three months ago because we could not handle living in displacement any more,” he told Diyaruna. “ISIS has burned down many houses, including my own, and now I am trying to repair it."
“Living here is difficult, but not any more than in the camp, and at least I am at my home," he said.
Services are main obstacle
Residents are returning to the area "in good numbers that are markedly increasing with each passing day", al-Hamdaniya district council head Faisal Iskandar told Diyaruna.
There are difficulties, but displaced residents prefer to return rather than remain in the camps, he said.
"These difficulties are not related to the security situation," he said, explaining that "the situation is stable and there is no concern of any type in this regard".
The main hurdles concern services, he said, as al-Hamdaniya's infrastructure and its private homes have suffered enormous damage at the hands of ISIS.
"We are working today to harness all our resources to provide a good level of services to the people," he said. “We have restored electricity and water at the centre of the district, renovated several schools, and rehabilitated al-Hamdaniya Hospital".
Other sub-districts and villages also suffer from subpar services and require extensive reconstruction efforts, Iskander said.
"We need more government support because our capabilities are limited," he said, as about a third of the district's houses have been damaged or destroyed.
"In order to speed up the return, people must be compensated or helped to rebuild their homes," he said.
"About one quarter of the population that has escaped from those areas has returned," said Ninawa Migration Department director Mohammed Ihsan. “The people are trying to defy all obstacles in order to return to their homes."
"It is not just one group or sect that is returning, but these people come from all groups, such as Christians, Shabak, Yazidis and Kakais," he told Diyaruna.
"What makes us optimistic is that people are continuing to return," Ihsan said, adding that local authorities are making efforts to provide basic services.
Improved security situation
The security situation in Ninawa Plain has stabilised, al-Hamdaniya municipal council member Abu Rabie al-Hayani told Diyaruna.
"The area is 100% secure, and there are enough forces from the army, police and Kurdish Peshmerga to protect it, as well as local fighters," he said.
This has encouraged displaced residents to return, even with the lack of services and the damage to their homes, he said, which many have been forced to repair at at their own expense.
Al-Hamdaniya district administration restored electricity and drinking water in many areas and conducted projects in other service sectors, al-Hayani said.
"We hope to achieve greater progress in this regard to return areas to the way they were, and even better," he said.
Al-Hayani said the number of IDPs returning to Ninawa Plains is expected to grow steadily in the upcoming period.
"Security approvals have been issued for the return of residents of 10 villages in al-Hamdaniya district who are currently living in displacement camps," he said.