By Kamal al-Ayash.
The authorities are spending a lot of money on reconstruction in the Anbar province. But locals are complaining, saying basic needs are not being fulfilled and the rest is just window dressing.
When you arrive in the major Anbar cities of Fallujah or Ramadi, you would be forgiven for thinking that reconstruction is well under way. But if you head out of the city centres and check the residential neighbourhoods you will see disconnected power lines and broken water pipes, as well as those who live here working outdoors, trying to fix such things.
Many Anbar locals, who were displaced by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, have now returned to their homes.
“In January 2018, for the first time in more than three years, there were more returnees than internally displaced people,” the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration reported recently. Thanks to improving conditions, Anbar province has seen the largest number of returnees in Iraq, the organization noted.
Many of those who returned say they came back because the Iraqi government told them there would be a swift return to normality and reconstruction. However many of the locals who have come back have found that although there is reconstruction, the authorities undertaking it seem to have some misplaced priorities and that they must provide for themselves, rather than wait for the government to fix things.
Ahmad Abdul-Hamid, 43, has just finished fixing up his barber shop in Fallujah. He was ready to open again but found he could not get to his premises because the municipal authorities were removing and replacing the sidewalks. This kind of work is impressive and shows that the authorities care about the citizens, Abdul-Hamid says, but their timing was off. They should ask the people here what they need and want, and prioritize that, he argues.
“The sidewalks that are being removed and replaced have no real impact on our lives. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had not been reconstructed for years,” Abdul-Hamid said, adding that he would have preferred to see the water and sewage networks fixed first, because these are things that actually endanger people’s lives.
“The money seems to be being spent in an unplanned, uncoordinated way,” Abdul-Hamid complains. “It should be used to compensate those who are still living in tents, in the middle of the rubble that was once their home.”
Locals say it is true that dozens of reconstruction projects have been completed. But they believe that at least some of these have been finished at the expense of their own basic needs.
Another Fallujah local, Jihad al-Dulaimi, 44, tells NIQASH that when he asked the city council for new wiring for power cables so he could fix his own electricity supply, he was told that there was no budget for this. Al-Dulaimi was angry and replied that they had somehow got enough funds to renovate their own council offices.
“Working in this way, the government is disregarding the real needs of the people here,” he says. “We don’t want to see huge sums spent on projects that are clearly not urgent and which could be postponed.”
Al-Dulaimi also questioned why efforts were being made to build a new park when bridges were still damaged and new sidewalks painted, when the streets were impassable.
Many Fallujah residents share that opinion. They believe that officials are embarking on easy-to-complete projects that make them look good, just in time for federal elections in May.
It’s not that we are not appreciative, says Mahdi al-Halbusi, a 51-year-old living in Ramadi, but “it feels like the authorities are decorating the outside of a house, in which nobody can live because the insides are so damaged”.
He and his family returned to Ramadi over a year ago and he feels as though a lot of the completed projects have just been attempts at image making. “Nothing has really changed, the situation is still tragic, since we returned,” he says.
Al-Halbusi says he likes walking around some areas, where there are new, coloured pavements and where the government offices and other nearby buildings look so nice. But that feeling gives way to dismay as soon as he enters any of the residential areas.
“I used to think my mother was the only person who would prepare the house for visitors by putting away our everyday things and bringing out the best,” he jokes. “After the visitors left, we would go back to normal, with everything back in its usual place. That is exactly what it feels like in this city now.”