Iraq's displaced forgotten in elections



While the election campaign is in full swing elsewhere in Iraq, the hundreds of thousands of people in the country's camps for the displaced barely register on the radars of those running for office.

In "Camp Seven" in the western Anbar province not a single campaign poster can be seen appealing to those who have the right to cast their ballot at the parliamentary vote on May 12.

The rows of UN tents are part of nine sprawling encampments in the region housing thousands of people who fled the fight against ISIS.

About five months after the Iraqi government declared victory over the extremists they remain stuck in the desert camp — and apparently ignored by the country's politicians.

For many of the camp's residents the disinterest shown by the election candidates is mirrored by their own antipathy to those running.

"I have no confidence in them," says Umm Maher, who fled her home in Qaim, a former ISIS stronghold.

Heightening her anger, and that of others in the camp, is the destruction of their homes and the disappearance of male relatives they say were either killed or seized by security services during the battle against ISIS.

"If they want our votes, they can give us back our children and our homes," says the 50-year-old, who doesn't know the fate of her husband and son.

Going into the polls, Iraq is only just starting to recover from the years of ISIS dominance over swathes of the country and the punishing fight to force out the militants.

Out of a total displaced population of approximately two million people, about 285,000 are registered to vote, according to the electoral commission.

More than 160 polling stations are being installed in 70 displaced camps, spread across eight of the country's 18 provinces.

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In a bid to encourage the displaced to vote, election officials say identification requirements have been eased for those in the camps.

But despite that, Umm Maher is not the only female resident of Camp Seven who won't be voting, due to the trauma left behind by the violence.

"I will not vote until my eldest son returns," says 47-year-old Umm Ahmed, who hasn't seen her 20-year-old since he was seized three years ago.

"Besides, nobody has come to ask after us," says the former resident of Saqlawiya, another one-time ISIS stronghold, a black veil partially covering her face.

Politicians admit that despite the potential votes that could be won in the camps, few have ventured there.

"The campaign is absent in the camps and no candidate goes there, even though the votes of the displaced are important," confirms Hikmat Zeydan, from the Rally for the Unity of Iraq, fielding five candidates in Anbar.

Many "are afraid of finding themselves in a difficult situation, because they have done nothing to help the return of the displaced".

One candidate, running on a list for Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi's Shiite-dominated Victory Alliance in Samarra, north of Baghdad is blunt in explaining why he has stayed away from two nearby camps.

"We have not put up any posters and did not move [around there] because most families are Daesh," alleges Jassem Al Joubouri.

Elsewhere in the country some have made an effort at trying to represent the interests of the displaced.

Abdel Bari Abbas, fled his home west of the former ISIS bastion of Mosul, and is now standing as a candidate.

As he runs his campaign from Baharka camp, in Erbil province in Kurdistan, he insists his experiences give him a unique insight into how to help.

"My family and the majority of Mosul residents have had many struggles. It is necessary to have a candidate who will make their voices heard," says the 48-year-old Arabic teacher.

"The problems will not be solved without us and I promised myself that even if I am elected, my family and I will stay in the camp."

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Dan Brown
Doubleday

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If you go...

Etihad Airways flies from Abu Dhabi to Kuala Lumpur, from about Dh3,600. Air Asia currently flies from Kuala Lumpur to Terengganu, with Berjaya Hotels & Resorts planning to launch direct chartered flights to Redang Island in the near future. Rooms at The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort start from 680RM (Dh597).

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The burning issue

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Read part four: an affection for classic cars lives on

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