By Kamal al-Ayash.
One of the country’s best known resorts, where different community groups used to holiday together, is slowly coming back to life, after several years in the middle of extremist-held territory.
Once it was one of Iraq’s most important and beloved tourist resorts. First opened in the late 1970s, Lake Habbaniyah boasted a large hotel, complete with over 300 rooms and 500 holiday chalets. Located 60 kilometres out of Fallujah and west of Baghdad, it offered Iraqis a respite from heat and, at one stage, from violence. Because it didn’t matter what sect you were here, enamoured visitors told the AFP news agency back in 2012.
But the tropical dream holiday has gone through hard times. Over the past few years it mainly made headlines because the resort was being occupied by displaced Iraqis who had fled the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The extremist group had been in control of many of the areas around Habbaniyah.
Which is why it was such a surprise recently when Iraqi reporters touring the somewhat desolate resort heard loud music. It was coming from a small tour bus filled with young people. The bus was actually leaving Habbaniyah but the reporters, including NIQASH’s correspondent, were curious and approached the vehicle.
“When life started to return to Anbar after the defeat of the IS group, we started to think about organizing trips to Habbaniyah again,” the driver of the bus, Saleh al-Issawi, explained to the journalists. “Some friends came and suggested that I organize a trip because I’m from here. So this is it, our first trip!”
“And it was a successful one,” adds Ahmad al-Jibouri, a 32-year-old originally from Baghdad, who was also on the bus. “We are going to spread the word about this beautiful area now that it is secure again. We all own minivans and we usually take people from one province to another. So we’re going to try and start bringing people to this area in the weekends and make some extra money with the excursions.”
Al-Jibouri believes the only way to bring peace back to Iraq is by bringing people together in places like this, where holiday makers co-existed happily. He also notes that various diners and shops on the road into Habbaniyah have re-opened and are ready for tourists once again. They too have started to promote the destination on social media like Facebook.
Ayoub al-Jumaili, 48, owns one of best-known souvenir and tourist-friendly stories on the route into the resort and he is looking forward to a good season. “Things are not yet quite as we would like them to be,” he concedes. “We are still lacking a few services and facilities but that is temporary,” states the resident of Fallujah.
Naturally tourists are also worried about security in the area. Anbar, a mostly-Sunni Muslim province, was home many fighters of the extremist Islamic State group, which controlled several of the province’s major cities. The Iraqi government managed to maintain security in Habbaniyah though.
The commander of the regiment in charge of protecting the Habbaniyah area insists that it is now safe. “The tourist town and the neighbouring villages were a safe haven for displaced people while most of the province was under the control of the extremists,” the officer, Uday al-Issawi, points out. “It wasn’t an easy thing to keep it secure and our main challenge was to keep the roads leading in here safe. Strict measures have been taken and protecting people who want to spend time here is a priority for leaders in Anbar and Baghdad,” he explains.
Also feeling positive was Jakoub Taha, the head of the department of maintenance for the resort. He and his colleagues had been able to overcome significant challenges, he said, including moving the displaced Iraqis who had been living here out again and then repairing the needed facilities.
He said that he had been tempted to leave the job several times because it was so frustrating. Local investors had put money into the resort but thanks to instability caused by the security crisis between 2014 and now, they had virtually all abandoned their plans. The larger hotel complex, the lakeside beach, larger restaurants and theatres and the amusement park were all in disrepair, he said. But they had managed to fix up other parts of the resort and were ready for new guests, he said enthusiastically – that includes a number of the chalets, the beach and some of the smaller restaurants and shops.
More money is needed and may be some time in coming. “But our self-managed efforts have given us the inspiration to do more,” Taha told NIQASH. “It’s not perhaps quite as we would like it to be but we are moving forwards. We are bringing life back to this place.”