A year after Daesh was defeated in the region, people suffer from several problems ranging from lack of essential services to disease and poverty.
ANAH, Iraq – Just over a year ago, much of the Iraqi Euphrates River Valley in the western Anbar was under Daesh or so-called Islamic State control. Many civilians had fled to other areas, some spending months in Daesh-held eastern Syria prior to escaping to Turkey or Erbil.
Civilians now walk the streets in relative security but unemployment and the hundreds of local men still missing weigh heavily.
After retaking Mosul in July 2017, the Iraqi army and local tribal Popular Mobilization Units trained by the international anti-Daesh coalition worked towards retaking the western Anbar. The cities lining the Euphrates are surrounded by the desert through which cross-border smuggling routes run and have long been an area of recruitment for insurgent groups.
Anah – an ancient town that was relocated when the nearby Haditha dam was built in the 1980s - was a key stepping stone towards retaking the Iraqi-Syrian border city of al-Qaim and was taken after two days of fighting starting on September 19, 2017.
It remains the point after which power lines are still down along the international road stretching to al-Qaim and the Syrian border, over a year later, and is seen as the safest city in the area.
Rawa is across the river from Anah but only in November 2017 were Iraqi forces able to clear Daesh from it. Bridges had been destroyed in the fighting and the need to take the border area before the operation was able to double back and take heavy vehicles through the desert and back towards the by-then besieged city.
Rawa was the last major Daesh-held town in Iraq to be retaken but the terrorist group continues to conduct attacks in various areas across the country over a year later.
On arriving in Anah in October 2018, TRT World found that electricity and basic services had been restored in the towns of Anah and Rawa and that many families that had fled over the previous years had returned.
However, the fact that hundreds of men are still missing weighs heavily. The whereabouts of over three hundred men who were arrested by Daesh in Anah alone are still unknown, several security officials in the area told TRT World.
Many had been in the police before Daesh took the area, they said, but stayed to take care of their families or remained in hiding even after the armed group occupied it.
Some 52 of them were from the city’s Reyhana district, the mayor of the district said. Reyhana was the toughest area to take, with reportedly many foreign snipers, and the airstrikes used to clear it causing major damage.
A brigade commander of Hashd al-Gharbiya, local security forces formed to fight Daesh and which now work alongside the police and army, told TRT World that ‘’three of my brothers were taken on a single day ‘’ by Daesh. He repeatedly asked this correspondent if she could help to get information on the case.
‘’The information we have is that many former police arrested by Daesh are in Hejin,’’ across the border in Syria and still under Daesh, ‘’but we have had no information on specific people,’’ he said.
Not knowing whether the men are dead or alive, their families are left in legal and emotional limbo. Wives cannot remarry or receive government pensions unless it can be proven that the men are dead.
The previous year, this correspondent had spoken to many members of the local security forces and stayed for a few nights with a local family in Anah that had not left during the time it was under Daesh.
Women whose husbands had been taken by the security forces for investigation and young girls who still refused to go out without their face veils and abayas for security reasons laughed and joked when alone but were still afraid in the streets.
A year later, many women wearing colourful headscarves and girl children wearing white ones and school uniforms can be seen in the streets.
A man originally from Anah who gave this correspondent a ride stopped the vehicle and suggested she take photos of some women in the streets that he didn’t know, to show that women now felt safe.
He was, however, very much against her taking photos of any female members of his family even wearing full hijab.
Many in Anah feel they are viewed as supporters of insurgent groups by those in other areas of the country, even if they were the ones to lose the most from the fight against Daesh, they say.
The women spoke of going to Albu Kamal – across the border in Syria now, but part of Daesh’s Wilayat al-Furat, or administrative division, in those years - to give birth under Daesh, since the closest trained doctors were there and said that they were allowed to have a male doctor perform a C-section on them with written permission from their husbands.
They complained of the difficulty to go even to the nearby Haditha in months after the liberation of the city, instead, due to military checkpoints at which they were viewed with suspicion.
NGOs and the government have helped to improve healthcare in the area over the past year but much remains to be done, especially closer to the border area.
For example, a female obstetrician who had worked in al-Qaim for 15 years before Daesh took it over and then started returning for 10 days a month earlier this year said that she had seen fistulas from poorly performed deliveries for the first time ever in the city and that though they weren't nursed well under the Daesh rule, treating them now was impossible given the lack of resources in the area.
She added that all the pregnant women she had seen were anemic, many severely so, and that none had received pre-natal care.
All of the western Anbar remains a military zone and permission for journalists to enter is highly restricted.
The relative proximity to the Syrian border and the vast hard-to-control desert expanses nearby are cited as the main concern.
Local forces and most of the civilians in Anah and Rawa that TRT World spoke to say that security is no longer a problem in these two cities, however.
The Rawa police chief, Brigadier General Ayad Ahmad Hamid, told TRT World in mid-October that there were no problems between the ‘’401 families’’ who had stayed under Daesh in the town – even ones who had relatives with Daesh fighters, so long as there was no contact between them - and those who have returned since the liberation.
‘’Three men were found to have entered Rawa that had links with Daesh this month,’’ he noted in October,’’ and have been sent to the court in Ramadi’’, but in general the security is very good.
The international coalition still occasionally conducts airstrikes in the desert area nearby, however, he said.
Infrastructure and bridges on nearby roads that have not yet been repaired is a common complaint in the larger town of Anah, as are high unemployment and the fact that some of the NGOs that had been helping in the immediate aftermath of the war have pulled out.
Ibrahem Shalal, who works at the Anah hospital, told TRT World that the Qatari Red Crescent had been extremely helpful in the months following the liberation but that it had recently left.
Joblessness is also a primary concern for many of the residents.
Even most of those working for the local security forces Hashd al-Gharbiya, the brigade commander said, do not receive a salary.
Meanwhile, area fish farms were suffering from low water levels this year, according to locals, and there is very little employment to be had for those wanting to return even if their homes have not been damaged.
This, residents say, is likely to create other problems if not dealt with soon.