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Iraqis Remain Displaced 1 Year After Fallujah's Liberation From ISIS


Fallujah was the first city in Iraq to be captured by ISIS. That was three years ago. It's been a year since it was liberated. Fallujah is where U.S. forces fought two major battles, where the Iraqi insurgency was strong and where al-Qaida also took root at one point. We're going to hear what it's like there now. NPR's Jane Arraf went to Fallujah to see what has changed, and she joins us. Hi, Jane.


SHAPIRO: How much has life returned to the city?

ARRAF: Well, compared to a year ago, it's like a completely different place. So I drove through the - Fallujah the day it was liberated actually, and although the government declared it liberated - the prime minister did a victory lap through the streets - there was actually still fighting going on. There were buildings being burned. There were airstrikes. There was destruction everywhere.

So this is a little more than a year later, and driving through these same streets, the shops are opened again. You see windows with sleeveless dresses and short skirts. There are cosmetics and music shops open. All of those were banned under ISIS. And in a city where people towards the end were literally on the verge of starvation - they were eating animal fodder - the place, if you can afford it, is full of food. The vegetable markets are open. There's almost everything there. But there still are problems - not to say it's perfect.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of problems are you seeing?

ARRAF: They're kind of the same ones that are afflicting other cities in Iraq that have been taken back from ISIS. And that includes Mosul, the biggest and the most recent. So there have been more than 12,000 claims to rebuild people's homes in Fallujah and Ramadi, and the money that's been paid out to them so far is not a cent. The government is broke. It says it's broke from fighting ISIS. So some people have returned to live in just one room of their damaged house. There's still explosives, although they've cleared literally tons of those. But still there's a long way to go.

SHAPIRO: Is everyone who fled able to return?

ARRAF: Not exactly, and that's another huge problem. There are more than 10,000 people who still haven't been able to return to their homes for a very complicated reason that haunts Iraq and will for years. These are the families of people suspected of or convicted of having been with ISIS. It's collective punishment, and it's not just punishment from the government. It's mainly from the tribes because one of the things that ISIS did was divide tribes and divide the country and divide communities. So the tribes have decreed that those members who joined ISIS won't be allowed to return back to their own homes.

SHAPIRO: There were certainly some people in Fallujah and other communities who sympathized with ISIS. How are people in Fallujah dealing with fears that there could be another incarnation of the group?

ARRAF: That is a definite fear, as we saw with al-Qaida when U.S. military forces were here. They managed to clear out al-Qaida from Fallujah and Ramadi and other cities, but a lot of those fighters just retreated to the western desert. It's that huge expanse of desert along the Euphrates River. And that's what's happened as well with ISIS, to a certain extent. So the next big fight - one of the next big fights here is along the Syrian border - cities like al-Qaim and a string of places along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Until Iraq secures that border, the fight won't really be over.

And then there are the reasons that ISIS flourished in Fallujah in the first place. It was the policies of a very sectarian government which, under sweeping anti-terrorism laws, arrested and put to death so many people from the community that the Iraqi military and the government became so hated, people welcomed ISIS to a certain extent. So that also hangs over the situation there.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jane Arraf reporting from Iraq. Thanks a lot.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.