x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Reclaiming an Iraqi life after exile

Zeitoun Maraad is one of the several million Iraqis who fled from their homes to the safety to another country.

Zeitoun Maraad set up a sewing workshop co-operative, giving women a chance to work from home.
Zeitoun Maraad set up a sewing workshop co-operative, giving women a chance to work from home.

MAHMUDIYAH // With her village crippled by violence, and one of her sons injured in a bomb blast, Zeitoun Maraad became one of the several million Iraqis who fled from their homes for the safety to another country. She and her family were lost in the mass exodus, numbers added to ignored refugee statistics. But her return after two years in exile was a far less typical story. The 43-year-old teacher became the first woman member of a Sahwa Council, the Iraqi tribal movement that took up arms against Islamic extremists and fought a bloody war with them. "It was very difficult to be here two years ago," she said in an interview with The National. "Extremists controlled the area, and most of the local families fled their homes. Al Qa'eda were everywhere, many people lost their loved ones. They turned it into a lifeless desert. "It wasn't easy to come home but we had to stand up for ourselves, even if it meant coming close to some dangers." Her home in Adwaniyah, near Mahmudiyah, lies in the heart of what was known as the triangle of death. Large swathes of land became no-go zones for US troops, Iraqi and American forces were regularly attacked and, by mid 2006, mass graves were filling with the corpses produced by a savage sectarian conflict. The local tribal lands contain many of the households that made up the social elite under Saddam Hussein, the former president. After the regime's collapse, and with Iraq's descent into chaos, key tribes either actively supported or turned a blind eye to the presence of Islamic extremists. These groups grew in strength, killed disobedient Iraqis and started to dominate the old tribal system. Eventually the situation became so dire that the tribes - even those involved in the insurgency - made a deal with the Americans; they stopped fighting one another and entered into an uneasy alliance against extremist Islamic militants. Mrs Maraad did not take part in the fighting but she did help create one of the Sahwa Councils, borrowing the model that began in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province. "We made contact with the Sahwa Councils in Ramadi and by November last year we had our own Sahwa. That same month we came home, with the help of the Iraqi Army and the Americans." The alliance between the US military and the Iraqi government on one hand, and the Sahwa Councils on the other, remains fragile. And although Mahmudiyah is far safer than it was 12 months ago, there are still risks for those co-operating with the US forces. Yet Mrs Maraad said the decision to work with them had not been difficult. "In the end, we saw that it was actually the Americans who were supporting us," she said. "I know it's dangerous for me to deal with them but I believe it's in the best interests of my family, my people and my country." As a member of the Sahwa Council, Mrs Maraad said she paid special attention to the problems facing women in the area. Education is limited, many families are poor and women are not widely encouraged to look beyond life in the home. "There is a lot of fear, and the women here are under the control of their husbands," she said. "That's a big problem but I see things are changing. Once, women didn't want to meet me if I was talking about projects to help them, or about how they should use their right to vote. Now they accept that and are interested and listen." This year, the mother-of-four set up a sewing workshop co-operative, giving women a chance to work from home. It was aimed at helping widows. "So many women lost their husbands in the fighting," she said. "About 40 per cent of women here are widows. Each family has lost someone and those that get killed are usually the men of the house, the husbands and sons. "It's difficult for these women to leave their homes and they need to earn a living, so we set up the co-operative." One of the major concerns in the Mahmudiyah area is that many women fall into a bureaucratic no-man's land. Widows are entitled to financial help from the government but many who have lost their husbands cannot prove their deaths: the men have disappeared and are assumed to have been killed but no corpse has been found. "If you don't have proof your husband died, then there are no benefits from the government," Mrs Maraad said. "We're pushing for something to be done about that, it's the biggest issue at the moment for us." Aider Hasan Aziz, a 41-year-old mother of five is in such a situation. Her husband was a police officer but eventually stopped going to work after receiving death threats from militants who said he was a traitor. On Sept 6 2007, he was kidnapped from their home in broad daylight by masked gunmen and has not been heard from since. "He is still missing," Mrs Aziz said. "In the beginning I was just crying all the time. Other women helped me though and I became stronger. I started doing beauty treatments at home to earn money, and I gained courage from being around other women." She was selected for the local council in Al Rashid and now campaigns for greater rights for women and children. She also keeps a rifle in her house, ready to defend herself and her sons. "I applied for widow's benefits and looked for help from the government. I had heard lots of promises from them but nothing ever came," she said. "In the end it was the Americans that gave me a small grant to open a workshop. "My situation isn't perfect but there are many women in a worse position than me. But I feel more positive than I have in a long time, and I think we're going to help free ourselves and improve our lives." Together with helping widows, both Mrs Maraad and Mrs Aziz are keen to see other Iraqis taking part in the elections, due to take place early next year. "We've formed a committee to monitor the next election and to help women take part in it," Mrs Maraad said. "We're trying to educate them and support their free will. Women need to know they should make their own minds up, not just do as their husbands tell them." psands@thenational.ae