By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser in Iraq.
These days there are no visitors heading to the ancient Iraqi city of Samarra, 120km north of Baghdad, to admire its archaeological treasures.
The city, once the capital of the powerful Abbasid Empire, which spread from Tunisia to Central Asia, is also home to the iconic golden-domed al-Askari shrine, a Shi’a holy site that was bombed by Sunni militants in 2006, unleashing a vicious cycle of sectarian attacks and counter-attacks across Iraq.
As we head north of Baghdad, after days searching for anyone willing to drive me to Samarra, the road becomes eerily empty and the checkpoints more frequent. I lose count but make a point of counting them on the way back, when we are stopped 35 times and pass through another half a dozen roadblocks manned by a combination of government forces and Shi’a militias. They are wearing a variety of uniforms and head-bands bearing insignias and flying flags of this or that militia. The once busy shops and restaurants which line both sides of the road have been looted and trashed, some have been burned down.
The houses lie abandoned, some used as military positions by the army or militias.
In the city, home to some 400,000 Sunni Muslims, fear and tension are palpable.
Residents are still reeling from a killing spree that took place in Hay al-Dhubbat, a neighbourhood in the east of the city in June. The attacks were seemingly in revenge for an incursion into the city by fighters of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) a day earlier.
Scores of others have been abducted since then. Some were later found dead, the rest have vanished and are feared dead too.
I meet family after family whose relatives have been murdered or abducted and not heard of since. Khadija* tells me her 22-year-old son was taken from his bed by armed men in military uniforms on the morning of 6 June. He was found dead nearby the following morning.
“The militias broke into our home as we were sleeping. They grabbed my son from his bed and took him outside where more armed men and three black Hummers (vehicles) were waiting. I tried to follow them but they shot in my direction. They also took our neighbour’s son. We looked for them everywhere until the following day we were told their bodies had been found in a mosque nearby. My son had been shot twice in the head and once in the chest,” she says.
Ali* tells me his two brothers, aged 20 and 22, were seized from their aunt’s house that same morning. Their bodies were found on a nearby building site a few hours later. Both had been shot in the head. He says that armed men in black uniforms had checked the family ration card and presumed the brothers were hiding at their aunt’s home. In fact they had just spent the night there as they often did when they visited and stayed up late talking.
On the same day dozens of young men suffered a similar fate.
In one house I find four women who live in fear of a knock on the door bringing news that their abducted relatives are dead. Aziza* says her husband and his brother were taken on 12 July at a checkpoint run by the Sarayat al-Salam (Peace Brigade), a militia of the Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr north of the city. The family had been fleeing Tikrit which is under IS control.
“We decided to move here because of the fighting in Tikrit. At the checkpoint they took my husband and his brother and the car. Since then we have received no news. All our possessions and documents were in the car. We are now destitute and don’t even have our IDs to prove who we are,” she says.
Some of those who were abducted were killed, even after their families paid hefty ransoms. The brother of a 39-year-old father of four, who was abducted on 26 July while on his way from Samarra to Baghdad, told me that after the family paid the ransom his brother failed to return. His body was later found in Baghdad. He had been shot three times in the head.
The ransom handover took place in a Shi’a area of Baghdad, a sign that the likely culprits are one of the many Shi’a militias operating in the area.
Samarra has been under lockdown since the IS incursion into the city at the beginning of June when the group also gained control of large areas of northern Iraq. Residents told me they feel powerless as they are trapped between the two sides; the Islamic State controls areas to the north of Samarra while government forces and Shi’a militias control areas to the south. The two sides often clash in areas surrounding the city.
“We are cut off from everything, the only road open is south to Baghdad but many of the checkpoints are controlled by Sh’ia militias who abduct Sunnis so most people avoid getting on the road. Trade and business in general has all but stopped. Young people especially are left with little to do and this is dangerous as some may turn to IS out of frustration,” an elderly resident told me.
As well as the Shi’a militas, residents are right to be worried about the threat posed by IS fighters. As I left Samarra news came through that the group is threatening to behead an Iraqi journalist they had abducted in the area last week.
The arrogant and menacing attitude of some of the Shi’a militias I observed at the checkpoints on the journey back to Baghdad is certain to fuel the resentment of Samarra’s largely Sunni population. This is compounded by a strong desire for revenge by those who have lost relatives at the hands of these militias. Unless the new Iraqi government reins in these all-powerful militias the vicious cycle of sectarian violence is only likely to get worse.
*Names have been changed to protect their identity
This blog was originally published on Huffington Post.