Persecuted by extremists, Sufis in Iraq sought shelter among other followers of mystical Islam in Baghdad. Their plight sheds light on nearly two million internally displaced Iraqis unable to return home.
It was April 2015 and swelteringly hot when Hikmet arrived at the Bzebez bridge, crossing the Euphrates river towards Baghdad. He and other volunteers would remain there for a month, aiding crowds of people fleeing Daesh’s takeover of Iraqi territory, and the military operations against the group.
“It was very hot and the people were scared,” he remembered, asking that only his first name be used. “Every day I was helping people to cross the bridge - they were coming in their thousands. We brought food and water to give people. We had wheelchairs to transport disabled people, the elderly and the handicapped.”
The internally displaced people (IDPs) were largely from Iraq’s Sufi community, and those Hikmet helped across the bridge were among some 10,000 people from Anbar and Saladin provinces who found themselves sheltering with other followers of mystical Islam in Baghdad.
The Iraqi capital’s Sufis meet every Thursday in one of the city’s main tekkiyehs - Sufi mosques. As part of their prayers they gather in a circle, swaying slightly to a rhythmical drum beat. Some beat themselves, as others twist their bodies and repeat their prayers.
Made famous by the whirling dervishes of Konya in Turkey, Sufism emphasises meditation and trance-like performances in religious practice.
They have often been persecuted, abhorred by Sunni extremists and considered heretical by some Shia communities too.
As Daesh swept across northern Iraq from 2014 onwards, those fleeing were escaping the worst.
The fundamentalists, as well as other armed extremist groups, had destroyed Sufi shrines in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa in Syria, as well as in northern Iraq. The escapees feared becoming targets too.
“Sufis don’t tend to violence or extremism - indeed, on the contrary, Daesh killed lots of Sufis because they don’t have extreme beliefs, and set about destroying their places of worship,” said Hikmet, 40, an assistant governor in Anbar province.
“We faced a lot of difficulties because the people [escaping] were in a really bad way psychologically, as well as having gone without food and needing somewhere to shelter.”
The IDPs were taken to a camp known as al Bustan - the orchard in Arabic - on the outskirts of Baghdad. They remained on the land, owned by a Sufi sheikh, for the next three years, aided by volunteers like Hikmet.
Baghdad’s Sufis helped the fleeing families and along with the UN provided shelter, food and clothes. Some also used their metalwork skills to build shelters.
“I felt it was a religious duty,” said one man attending the Thursday Sufi prayers, who gave his name as Abu Ali. “I would have felt embarrassed in front of God, if I had just stayed in my warm bed at night, while others had nothing.”
The Sufi and other IDPs accommodated at al Bustan began returning to their homes in Anbar and Saladin provinces during 2017. But not all have been able to settle back in the places they fled from. Some have been displaced yet again, having returned to homes made uninhabitable by damage from the conflict. According to Hikmet, they have instead gone to shelter with relatives whose homes were not destroyed.
The Sufi community’s situation sheds light on the wider issue of Iraq’s internally displaced populations.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 1.8 million people remain uprooted within Iraq. Last year 120,000 people had to move for a second time, following failed attempts to return to their original homes, like those whom Hikmet describes as settling with relatives.
About a third of displaced Iraqis live in camps, with most of the others settling in private homes. A fraction live in mosques, churches, schools, and unfinished or abandoned buildings.
“Recent studies show that two-thirds of remaining IDPs are unwilling or unable to go home as their homes are still destroyed, there are very few employment opportunities, and because of fear of insecurity in the area of origin, or tribal disputes that have resulted in stigmatisation or blocked return,” Alexandra Saieh, advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq, told TRT World.
“We’re seeing secondary displacement and it’s happening across the country. In camps in [the northern province] Nineweh, IDPs have tried to go home, left the camps and have now returned, simply because they did not have the resources to rebuild their homes. The camp is simply a last resort.”
Although international donors and investors pledged some $30 billion for Iraq’s reconstruction at a conference in Kuwait last year, people on the ground said funds still fall short.
“The money from the Kuwait conference has not come online as quickly as expected, and there doesn’t appear to be any sort of public tracking system to see where these funds are going, how much has been received and how much the government is still waiting for,” said Saieh.
Knowing that their homes have been destroyed, some members of the displaced Sufi community are now setting up permanently in Baghdad.
Burhan al Janabi, 40, held up pictures on his phone of his destroyed home near Tikrit in Saladin province, where he managed a water factory. He had returned to visit a few days previously, but is not planning to go back for good.
“Daesh does not like us [Sufi] dervishes,” he said, describing how he had to flee in 2014 as Daesh gained ground. “It was my town, and I am sad I cannot go back.”
For now, he attends prayers at the Baghdad tekkiyeh up to twice a week, and is building a new life. “God knows what will happen,” he added.
Others have also made Thursday prayers a new focus, resigned to the fact that they are unable to return home.
Taxi driver Saleh Ahmed described how he was pushed out of his home near Ramadi by Daesh advances in 2014.
“I come here to the tekkiyeh every Monday and Thursday,” he said, balancing a grandson on his hip. “I want to stay in Baghdad now - I feel more comfortable here. The issue of displaced people is a huge one for Iraq - Daesh destroyed people’s homes.”
And while Iraqi politicians have boasted of defeating Daesh, members of the Sufi community are not only still living in limbo, but also fear a resurgence of the extremists who persecuted them.
“People are scared about a return of Daesh,” said Hikmet. “They’ve been eradicated militarily, but their ideology is still there. It still needs fighting.”