Having walked with their wives and children across frontlines, dodging gun fights between Iraqi forces and Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul, displaced Iraqi men were hoping for a tent and the chance to rest in the crowded Hammam al-Alil camp for displaced people.
Instead many end up being interrogated and then detained – a fate shared by an estimated 2,000 men accused of having ties to the Sunni Muslim militants, according to human rights activists.
Up to 2,000 people flee Mosul every day as government forces close in on besieged ISIS fighters in the western half of the city, their biggest remaining stronghold in Iraq.
The exodus has put pressure on the security forces to root out any militants posing as displaced people in order to escape or stage suicide attacks.
Every adult male coming to Hammam al-Alil camp — the arrival point for the displaced — is led to a fenced compound where officers inspect their identity cards and check them against a database of ISIS suspects.
But human rights activists and residents say the database is not only based on evidence but also personal grudges and – in the case of Mohammed – mere appearances. Beards were mandatory under the Sunni Muslim militants who took control of the city in 2014.
Most displaced people stay just two hours at the fenced compound to see their papers verified, while being offered water and food before getting a tent or a lift to another camp.
But up to 30 are arrested every day for suspected militant ties, said Lieutenant General Bassam Hussein Ali, head of joint security operations to evacuate displaced people from Mosul.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates some 1,200 have been detained and at least 700 others sent to Baghdad for prosecution, though it is not known yet if any have been convicted.
Ali said each suspect would ultimately be referred to a judge “to be punished in accordance with the crime they have committed.”
“We only check the names of the males on computers and if it appears that the names are on the wanted list of the security forces, we separate them from their families and we inform their families that they will be detained for interrogation,” he said.
But HRW’s senior Iraq researcher Belkis Wille said two directors of prisons in Hammam al-Alil and Qayyarah, also located south of Mosul, had told her they believed a third of their inmates were innocent – often held because they had similar names to wanted people. One watch list contained some 80,000 suspects.
Others were jailed because of false accusations motivated by personal quarrels.
Major General Haydar Youssef Abdalla, head of the elite squad in Iraq’s Federal Police, said to avoid wrongful accusations, people making allegations needed to provide witnesses.
The security checks don’t end in the camp, home to 30,000 displaced.
Whoever is allowed to travel on to relatives living in a safer part of Mosul needs another permit to leave the city. Queues form at road checkpoints where people have to stop to show their papers.