A small number of families returned home to Fallujah last month, after it was liberated from ISIS.
"I decided to go and declare my repentance [to ISIS]," says Jamal al-Mohammedi, 45. He used to work as a policeman in Fallujah, before ISIS took control in June 2014.
"ISIS asked me to come and do this through one of my relatives, who had joined the organization. He told me I needed to go and say that I repented, because the group was planning to blow up my house. He also sent pictures of improvised explosives around the homes of my brother-in-law and my father."
ISIS gave the same command to many members of the security forces: repent or die.
Seeing no other choice, Jamal al-Mohammedi did as he was told. He went to the mosque in the city center and spoke to the masked men at the door, telling them he wished to repent.
"I was taken to a person named al-Haji who asked me a number of questions about my name, family, tribe and work place," he said. "Then I put my hand on the Koran and repeated what they told me to. I can't remember the exact wording, but basically it was that I repented and that I would not work with any government entity in the future."
"They held me for two days, and I gave them my personal weapon and my military ID."
Despite the fact that al-Mohammedi did this unwillingly, he is now viewed as a deserter who obeyed the rules of ISIS, rather than someone who did his duty. And he is not welcome back in Fallujah.
They are punishing us for something we did to protect our families. We should be allowed to return to our homes with dignity. They shouldn't punish us like this.
– Jamal al-Mohammedi, former police officer, Fallujah
Documents found by security forces who pushed the militants out of Fallujah confirm there were more than 60,000 "persons of interest" in Anbar, as noted by ISIS. These included former police officers or military men. Around 20,000 of these people declared their repentance.
About 5,000 of those who repented—mostly from within the ranks of Fallujah’s police force—were blocked from returning to Fallujah after it was liberated.
Al-Mohammedi says this is completely unfair. "Those who made these decisions haven't considered the kinds of sacrifices we have made since 2007," the former policeman says. "They are punishing us for something we did to protect our families and our property. They may not want us back in the police force, but we should still be allowed to return to our homes with dignity. They shouldn't punish us like this."
Watheq al-Jumaili, 38, tells a similar story. He actually resigned from his job with the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior in 2013, long before ISIS took over Fallujah. Nonetheless, ISIS asked him to hand over his weapon and military ID and declare his repentance. He couldn't comply with their first demand because he had already given these his weapon and ID back to the Iraqi government. But he could repent.
"They were still not convinced I was genuine," al-Jumaili says. In the end, ISIS blew up his home anyway. Al-Jumaili says he is not allowed back into Fallujah, even to see what remains of his belongings.
Destroyed homes in Fallujah
"We heard a lot about procedures to allow people to return home," he said. "But on the ground, there doesn’t seem to be much going on. It seems as though all these procedures are really just to allow some people to return—those who are supported by their tribes and other influential people."
Even security staffers who didn't repent have had problems. Ammar Jouriyeh used to work for anti-terrorism forces inside Fallujah. He refused to repent, even though ISIS threatened him several times. In the end, he was forced to leave the city.
"I still have my weapon and ammunition though," he boasted. "I buried them in my garden before I left town."
Jouriyeh was able to re-join some pro-government forces in the nearby district of Habbaniyah. "But then we found out that the government had stopped paying our salaries. So we returned to Fallujah, picked up our families and took them to Baghdad," the 41-year-old says. "It was a very difficult journey."
Unfortunately, after Jouriyeh left, ISIS began using his home as one of their bases in the city. Many locals thought this meant he was cooperating with the militants, and his name is blacklisted now; he too is not allowed back into his hometown.
Politicians say they are aware of this issue and are doing their best to resolve it.
Mohammed al-Karbouli, a member of the Iraqi Parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, said authorities recognize there were two kinds of repenters. There were those who repented and became active members of ISIS, and those who simply saw no other choice and were trying to protect themselves and others.
The former group will not be allowed to return home, al-Karbouli said. For the latter, he said officials are doing their best to help them get home.
Families in Fallujah wait to receive food and other supplies distributed by Preemptive Love Coalition
"The fact that they fled doesn’t mean they are weak or that they deserted," al-Karbouli argues. "They were driven out by the brutality of the enemy and their superior manpower and weaponry. Policemen who only have light weapons can’t confront an enemy like that."
"We have held a number of meetings to try and work out how to ensure only the last group are able to return," al-Karbouli says. "But it is a difficult and complicated matter, and requires agreements between politicians and security forces."
Efforts are being made by tribal groups to persuade the government to allow 4,000 of the guiltless repenters to return home to Fallujah. It is seen as a positive step by men like Jouriyeh and al-Mohammedi, but they worry that the procedure is too informal at the moment. They fear those who return could be prosecuted later on.
"These informal procedures are useless," said Rajeh al-Issawi, a local politician who heads Anbar’s provincial security committee. "Although the repenters are allowed to return home, their names are not deleted from the computerized list of wanted persons. So legally speaking, they could be arrested at any moment. For the time being we are adopting a plan that would allow everyone to return home with their families. We will check their names later on. Where there is evidence that a person joined ISIS, they will be arrested."
A version of this article originally appeared on Niqash.