The children were running around the yard playing games next to the family car, when Ashwaq Abdel Kareem heard the roar of a jet plane that foretold an airstrike.
It was near midnight on June 1, 2015. Ashwaq, her husband, and five children were in the backyard of their half-built house in the northern Iraqi town of Hawija. The night sweltered with an oven-like dry heat during an Iraqi summer in which temperatures could soar to 120 degrees in the daytime. Hawija was under ISIS occupation, which meant the entire town had been cut off from electricity, in addition to the general brutality of political rule by the radical group. There was no escape from the temperature except to go outside where a breeze might cool the air.
Far above Ashwaq and her family, a Dutch F-16 fighter jet released a bomb that whistled down to hit a car-bomb factory in the center of Hawija’s industrial district. The F-16’s mission was coordinated by the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS and was planned by the U.S. military. From 2014 to the present day, between 8,000 and 13,000 civilians have died as a result of bombing by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, according to the monitoring organization Airwars; the coalition only acknowledges the deaths of 1,417 civilians. At the height of the bombing in 2017, as the coalition bombed tightly packed urban areas like Mosul, at least 9,000 civilians died, according to The Associated Press. Yet only one civilian received compensation, although the U.S. military did distribute a limited number of condolence or “ex gratia” payments — which are voluntary payments and not an admission of legal liability — reportedly to the families of around 14 victims.
ISIS had stored an estimated 18,000 kilograms of explosives in the factory, which stood in the midst of a crowded neighborhood. Even though the strike targeted a bomb-making factory, Pentagon planners did not factor in the casualties that could be caused by the secondary detonations. When the bomb hit the factory, night turned into day. Residents of Hawija likened it to a nuclear explosion. The earth rippled and waves of shrapnel flew through the air, tearing into people’s flesh. Buildings collapsed into rubble. The air turned yellow from the fire and chemicals, and the midnight sky lit up as though it were the middle of the afternoon. Fifty kilometers away, in the city of Kirkuk, people said they felt the ground shake, according to a report on the bombing by the Dutch monitoring organization PAX.
Ashwaq’s home shuddered, the windows shattered, and bricks and masonry crashed to the ground. The pressure and the heat caused the gasoline in the family car to catch fire, and the vehicle exploded just as Ashwaq’s children ran past. The flaming gas from the car struck her 4-year-old son Omar across the face and lit his head on fire like the tip of a match. Omar’s father, Ahmed Abdallah al-Jamili, says he has the image of his son running, his head aflame, engraved in his mind. He and Ashwaq both thought that Omar would die. The couple rushed the child to the nearest hospital in a neighbor’s car. They could barely see as they drove streets fogged with acrid chemical smoke from still-raging fires.
The explosion killed at least 85 people, but the actual number is likely much higher, though impossible to verify. ISIS controlled the hospital and often refused to treat people who were not ISIS sympathizers, let alone issue death certificates. Additionally, Hawija was a way station for people who had been displaced by the war took as they fled ISIS territory to Kurdistan. Many internally displaced families had gathered in the industrial area, and uncounted people were killed when the factory was hit. Their deaths were not recorded because there was no one to identify them. PAX — which has done extensive research into the bombing — recently uncovered the existence of two mass graves, but they were unable to visit the sites and verify the number of bodies.
Even as it slowly became clear that the U.S. coalition was responsible for what happened, the needs of the victims and survivors were placed last because, for the countries responsible for the carnage, the most important priority was avoiding accountability. Families were forced to hear vague mentions of aid without ever being consulted about what they actually wanted and needed. Now, seven years later, a visit to Hawija shows how the crumbs of help that were eventually promised have apparently not been delivered to any useful extent for the victims.
A “Voluntary” Contribution
Two weeks after the bombing, then-Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert received a classified report from U.S. Central Command that assessed early casualty estimates of 70 civilians as “credible.” A few weeks after that, Plasschaert told the Dutch Parliament that “as far as known at the moment, the Netherlands had not been involved in any instances of civilian casualties caused by airstrikes in Iraq.”
For more than four years, the Dutch government obfuscated its involvement in the bombing until finally Dutch journalists brought the issue to light. The resulting scandal almost toppled the government. By that time, Plasschaert was no longer in the cabinet — she resigned in 2017 after Dutch peacekeepers were killed in Mali. In 2018, she was appointed the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. (A spokesperson for UNAMI told The Intercept that Plasschaert was not available to speak on the bombing.)
For more than four years, the Dutch government obfuscated its involvement in the bombing until finally Dutch journalists brought the issue to light. The resulting scandal almost toppled the government and forced Plasschaert to resign, although she quickly recovered; she is currently the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. (A spokesperson for UNAMI told The Intercept that Plasschaert was not available to speak on the bombing.)
Facing pressure from Parliament and growing public anger, the Dutch Ministry of Defense agreed to provide a fund of 4.4 million euros to Hawija as a “voluntary contribution.” The words were chosen carefully. The Dutch government refuses to use the term “compensation.” Sascha Louwhoff, a coordinating spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Defense, explained that if they had issued direct payments to survivors, the Dutch would be opening themselves up to legal responsibility for the bombing. She stated that the Ministry of Defense had no intention of issuing an apology. As she put it, “We are not accountable.”
The Dutch government divided the fund between the United Nations Development Fund and the International Organization for Migration to invest in “‘electricity supplies, economic activities, job opportunities, and water supplies.” UNDP received $1,757,546 and IOM received $3,604,730. Even though the Dutch government had avoided providing compensation to individual people, its fund turned Hawija into one of the few cases where a coalition member offered compensation to a town that had been damaged.
But this money does not seem to have reached the survivors who need it the most — and has riven Hawija as accusations of corruption divide the community.
Following the Money
Not long ago, I drove to Hawija with Tawfan al-Harbi, the head of al-Ghad: a local NGO that partnered with PAX, the Dutch group, to produce a comprehensive report on the aftermath of the strike, based on interviews with hundreds of survivors. Driving from al-Ghad’s Kirkuk office to Hawija, al-Harbi spoke in a steady stream, with regular interruptions from his constantly ringing mobile phone. He is a bouncy middle-aged man who, despite the 110-degree heat, wore a dapper navy and amber pinstriped suit with a matching amber ring and watch. He pointed to different areas that had been under ISIS control, some of which still suffer periodic small-scale attacks from the remnants of the organization. Al-Harbi was deeply unimpressed with the UNDP and IOM projects, which he said had produced minimal results for the budget they were given.
“The international organizations are like a big box. Money goes to guards, hotels, and a very small part goes to the people affected,” he said.
The outskirts of Hawija burst with rich green crops and low tangled brush. The town neighbors a river, and prior to the ISIS occupation, it was a center for agricultural production. Much of its economy also focused on its industrial neighborhood, which was home to factories, car repair shops, and local businesses. The PAX report estimates that the loss of privately owned businesses, possessions, and houses as a result of the bombing comes to around $11 million.
“The international organizations are like a big box. Money goes to guards, hotels, and a very small part goes to the people affected.”
Despite the UNDP and IOM projects, all it takes is driving around the town to understand that after seven years, Hawija is still deeply scarred by the bombing. Entering the town, a stretch of road is unpaved dirt, while another stretch is freshly laid asphalt, a half-finished lopsidedness that repeats throughout much of the town. A freshly built shop stands next to an empty lot filled with rubble remaining from when the neighborhood was obliterated by bombings during the war.
UNDP and IOM told The Intercept in a joint statement in August that the UNDP project had excavated and installed electricity poles and transformers. They added that they anticipated installing an electrical substation in October. IOM’s project consists of clearing rubble, creating jobs through cash-for-work programs, and rehabilitating shops; IOM said in a separate statement to The Intercept that 259 shops had been rehabilitated, six agricultural projects had gone ahead with clearance from local authorities, and 400 individuals had participated in cash-for-work activities. Both organizations stated they had operated in consultation with the community, but none of the survivors who spoke with The Intercept said they had been consulted. This is consistent with PAX’s report, which sampled a much larger group of survivors who said they had never been consulted on how the funds should be distributed.
The remains of the industrial neighborhood are a mix of activity and vast stretches of lots filled with jagged concrete debris. Workers in yellow hard hats hide from the sun in the shade of one building. They are working on the IOM project, although only a few of them are from the areas affected by the bombing; the salaries paid by IOM are not going to the families who were bombed.
The salaries paid by IOM are not going to the families who were bombed.
Another group of men slap mortar onto gray bricks as they build a fresh wall of a shop; they were commissioned by the shop owner but think he got some of his funding from an NGO, though they are not sure which one. This mixture of funding sources seemed to be common in the industrial zone where some shops had been rebuilt on private funds, some appeared to be using IOM’s money, and some appeared to be halfway in between.
An engineer working at what appeared to be UNDP’s electrical project complained that UNDP and the governorate were fighting, and as a result work was slow. He pointed to a building on the site, a low concrete rectangle, and complained that UNDP had vastly overpaid for its construction. These types of claims are hard to verify but are frequently heard in Hawija, where accusations that the NGOs are misappropriating funds flew swiftly from most of the people I interviewed.
Hawija’s mayor is Sabhan Khalaf al-Jubory, a neat man with a salt-and-pepper mustache. In an interview at his office, he said he had only one demand of the Dutch government: that they discontinue working through UNDP or IOM. He accused UNDP of being party to a corruption scandal and IOM of never informing local authorities about their projects. (In an emailed statement, Zena Ali-Ahmad, the UNDP’s resident representative in Iraq, said, “UNDP Iraq is not aware of any instances of corruption associated with this project.”) Airing his grievances, al-Jubory spoke in a resigned tone that evoked the frustration of knowing that this meeting with an international reporter, hardly his first, would most likely not result in any tangible change for the victims of the bombing. He explained that he understands the Dutch government does not want to take legal responsibility for the bombing, but at the same time, he asked that their funding go directly to the survivors.
“Do a project for the families of the people who were killed without taking responsibility,” he said. He agrees with survivors who say cancer cases soared following the bombing, which they suspect is due to the chemicals released by the explosives. “Many people have cancer,” he noted. “Many people need to leave Iraq to get treatments.”
Saba Azeem, a project leader at PAX and lead researcher on the group’s Hawija report, noted that over the course of PAX’s investigation, they had not observed tangible benefits from the UNDP and IOM projects for the survivors of the bombing. But the Dutch, she realizes, are not willing to consider direct support to the survivors. “If they do take on the responsibility or say they are sorry, that could be admitting guilt, and therefore, I think that would lead to a bigger legal issue,” Azeem noted.
The strike was planned by the United States military and depended on U.S. intelligence. The targeting of the factory was even approved by Lt. Gen. James Terry, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, according to an Army investigation in 2015. A key problem, however, is that prior to the strike, the U.S. military conducted a “collateral damage estimate,” or CDE, that did not account for damage that might be caused by a secondary explosion.
Late last year, the New York Times published a tranche of military records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act that included a detailed military appraisal of the Hawija strike after it had taken place. An article by The Intercept’s Nick Turse revealed that an intelligence official wrote in the appraisal that CDE methodology “does not account for secondary explosions.” That was the case with the CDE for Hawija — even though, according to Airwars, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs had estimated, before the coalition’s attack, that the bomb factory contained around 18,060 kilograms of explosives. As The Intercept reported, when the U.S. Navy detonated a similar amount of explosives in a military test, they registered a 3.9 magnitude equivalent to a small earthquake.
“I do not think that anyone could have predicted the magnitude of the explosion and its effects in the surrounding neighborhood,” a coalition official wrote in the military documents. “Secondary effects are impossible to estimate with any level of accuracy, especially without knowing the quantity and type (s) of explosive material present at the site.”
Despite its involvement, the United States has not offered an apology or individual compensation. This is consistent with U.S. policy that has made compensation for civilians extremely rare. The only legal way for civilians to pursue compensation in the U.S. has been through the Foreign Claims Act, but that excludes compensation for death or injury during combat, making victims of the Hawija bombing ineligible. The only other option would be for civilians to receive voluntary ex gratia payments, but the Pentagon has viewed those payments as a strategic tactic to improve relations between U.S. troops and local communities. As the number of ground troops in Iraq have decreased, so have the ex gratia statements. In 2020, the Pentagon did not issue a single ex gratia payment. The ex gratia policy is now changing to allow for broader payments, but the changes do not apply to harm caused in the past.
This leaves civilians who suffered long-term injuries that require expensive treatment they cannot receive in Iraq with no legal route to pursue compensation from the U.S.
When Ashwaq and her husband arrived at the hospital with their son, the halls were crowded with the injured and the dead. In some ways, they were lucky: Omar’s injuries were so severe that even though the hospital was under ISIS control, it agreed to treat him. Many others were turned away at the door because they had not sworn allegiance to the organization; they were forced to sew up wounds at home or to seek treatment from local pharmacists who were far out of their depth.
The doctors at the hospital did not have the ability or resources to treat Omar properly. Ashwaq and Ahmed begged permission from the ISIS occupiers to leave Hawija so they could get Omar’s injuries treated at a better hospital. They were refused. Twice before, Ashwaq had attempted to escape the town with the children, and each time she had been forced back. (Ahmed stayed behind because men were executed if they were discovered leaving). Fear for Omar’s life forced the family to take desperate measures. They paid a smuggler to get them out of the town. They walked through until they managed to cross into government-controlled territory.
But by the time they got to the hospital in Kirkuk, doctors told them it was too late; Omar should have been treated immediately after the burn to avoid permanent damage and scarring. Omar is now 11, and his face is a mask that twists with white swirling scars. Other children bully him. At school, they called him Abu Tashwy, which translates roughly to the “disfigured guy.” He has stopped going to school to avoid the humiliation.
Ashwaq and Ahmed cannot afford the many operations Omar would need to treat his burns. “I see him and I also become sad,” Ashwaq told me. “I see him and say God willing there will come a day where his face is normal.”
I met Ashwaq and Ahmed in their home, where they served us water and sweet black tea. It quickly became clear that they were accustomed to reciting their story to a parade of foreigners; they had spoken to NGO researchers, Dutch journalists, and Dutch officials. We talked in their home’s yellow-tiled entrance hall, only a few minutes away from the industrial zone by car. The family sat on thin cushions placed around the edges of the mostly bare room, and the other children came in and out, playing with each other as their parents spoke. Omar sat next to his mother, not saying a word.
Ashwaq wore a pale blue dress scattered with pink cherry blossoms. She has thick eyebrows, a heavy gaze, and an air of exhausted resignation mixed with a dogged desire to help Omar. She recounted her story readily, but she also made clear that she has no expectations that her telling of it will result in any benefit to her or to Omar.
“In the beginning, I believed,” she said, “They said to go to this place, and I believed them.” The “they” she refers to appears to be an amorphous combination of NGOs that promised they could help. “But I lost hope, I don’t have any hope remaining. They said they would give me support. Lies. It was lies.”
Ahmed said he has not seen a single benefit from the Dutch fund and neither have any of the families he knows who were affected by the bombing. He said he was never consulted about the fund by any representatives of the Dutch government. A thin, bespectacled man in a light white robe who speaks in a quiet, careful voice, Ahmed attended a conference in Erbil hosted by al-Ghad where he said he met representatives from the Dutch government and spoke to them about how he desperately needed treatment for his son. Referring to the fund of 4 million euros, the Dutch representatives told him that they had already compensated Hawija.
I met with other families in Hawija. All had the same complaint. Foreigners had come and recorded their names and stories, but they had not benefited from the money reportedly flowing into their town. No one had consulted them about how the money would be used, and they believed that it must be disappearing into corrupt pockets.
Yusra Khalaf, 20, was only 12 when the bomb struck. She was sleeping in her family’s entrance hall near the window, and when it shattered, it sent a sharp piece of shrapnel straight into her arm. She tried to go to the hospital but was turned away at the door; her mother had to sew her wound at home. As it healed, her arm began to swell and turn a purpled blue; she does not know what caused the aftereffects, but she suspects chemicals from the bombing.
Her father, Yasser Khalaf Hamed, 47, wore a gray dishdasha and smoked steadily. Yusra wore pink robe and spoke in a soft voice. Her injured arm is swollen and mottled with blue veins; she said that it is heavy and she can barely move it. Like Omar, she suffers from bullying at her school. Even while talking about her injury, she tries to hide her arm within her sleeve until she is directly asked about it. Her father worries this is causing a delay in her studies. “If only they would stop talking about her,” he says. “Her younger sister graduated, and she’s still in school.”
They still live in the house where the bomb struck. Yusra speaks to me feet from where she was sleeping when she was injured. She says she did not want to return to this house.
Ashwaq and Ahmed did receive a small benefit from the coverage their case has received, but not from the Dutch government. Citizens crowdfunded Omar’s treatment and gathered around 7,000 euros. It’s not enough for the estimated cost of his operations, but it’s a start. Yet in order to get the treatment, they need a visa to the Netherlands, and although they applied months ago, they have heard nothing. They wait in limbo, holding on to the slimmest hope that even if they cannot get compensation, the Dutch government will at least grant them a visa. Their expectations are low.
In the meantime, the long-term effects of the bombing stay with them. It’s not just the physical injuries. Ashwaq says she still shakes with fear when she hears planes flying overhead. On the way to her house, I passed an old man standing in the road, apparently lost. It was Omar’s grandfather, who has never recovered.
Correction: November 1, 2022
This story has been updated to note that Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert resigned from the Dutch government in 2017 after Dutch peacekeepers were killed in Mali.