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"Refugees are returning to Ramadi out of desperation"

Friedel Taube / ccMarch 29, 2016

The German journalist Uli Gack recently travelled to Iraq to make a feature program. In Ramadi, he spoke to people who, clutching at straws, have returned to what is essentially an uninhabitable town.

Refugees in Ramadi
Image: Reuters/Stringer

DW: Mr. Gack, who were the people you met in Ramadi?

Hans-Ulrich Gack: They're Sunni tribes that have stuck it out there or, in some cases, who've returned. Ramadi is deserted actually. The town is in ruins, and there's no infrastructure, no water, no electricity. The town is essentially uninhabitable. But the Sunni tribes want people to come back, possibly as early as mid-April.

Where did the people who are already in Ramadi now come from?

There are big Sunni refugee camps outside the gates of Baghdad. People were prevented from entering the city, because the Shia rulers there fear that there are many sleeper cells among the Sunnis who are cooperating with the "Islamic State" (IS). Many of them just want to go back, so they have a roof over their heads. From what I've seen, though, it's scarcely possible to survive in Ramadi.

Why is that?

50 percent of the town is in ruins. Many of the buildings are mined. Sunni tribesmen told me they defused more than 3,000 explosive devices in houses in the space of a few days. And they certainly haven't found all of them. Many of these IEDs are so fiendishly designed that the only thing you can do is blow up the whole house. You can't defuse them anymore. A lot of them have a delayed-action fuse or are remote-controlled.

What did the people who experienced the battle for Ramadi tell you about it?

They told us that IS used them as human shields. If the Iraqi army was attacking and IS was in retreat, large numbers of people were driven between the fighters so the army couldn't advance any further. A lot of people died that way. We met people who showed us terrible injuries, including children. IS is pursuing this conflict mercilessly, and it's showing no consideration at all for the civilian population.

Why on earth would anyone return to a town like that of their own accord?

Quite simply: hopelessness. They don't know where to go. The situation is so brutally bad. Many people attack aid workers, because they're so desperate. These aren't properly organized camps, just makeshift ones. People fleeing reached certain points, the Tigris, for example, and the Shia government wouldn't let them cross the river. Camps of 30,000 or 40,000 people accumulate there.

Porträt - Hans-Ulrich Uli Gack
ZDF's Hans-Ulrich GackImage: ZDF/R. Rossival

Added to that, you have conflicts between Sunni and Shia Iraqis. These people have ended up caught in the middle; they're not really accepted by anyone. The UN can only help to a very limited degree, people simply don't know where to go, and out of desperation, they go back to their towns and villages. People have said to me that everything in Ramadi as it is is better than these refugee camps. Many of them are clinging to the illusion that their house might still be standing. They're clutching at Ramadi like a straw.

Do you assume that refugees will also return from Germany to their hometowns in Iraq?

It's not out of the question. Some are turning their backs on Germany in disappointment. But when it gets around among the refugees in Germany how disastrous the situation is in Iraq it will be a huge deterrent, and they won't come in any appreciable number.

The number of refugees displaced within Iraq, however, will rise dramatically. At the moment, there are operations in progress to liberate the second-largest Iraqi city, Mosul. IS is in retreat. In the Mosul region alone the UN reckons with up to 1.2 million refugees trying to escape the fighting. That will put pressure on Turkey, to which people are trying to escape in order to travel on to Germany. I think we have to reckon with a new wave of refugees from Iraq. UN representatives have told me they can't sleep because they can't gauge what's happening in Mosul. That will put all the refugee movements we've seen in Iraq to date in the shade. I would even reckon that more than 1.2 million will come because the situation in Mosul is catastrophic. The price of gas there has exploded; it's ten or twenty times what it was. People have no money left. Many are being well and truly looted by IS. We spoke to people in Mosul who were desperate; they're going to flee in the direction of northern Iraq, Turkey, maybe even Syria.

Hans-Ulrich Gack is the head of the Cairo studio of the German state television channel ZDF. He has been reporting from Arab countries for many years. His reportage about refugees in Iraq will soon be broadcast on DW-TV.