Iraq / AP
Fighting between Iraqi forces and militants affiliated with the IS group close to Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has displaced over 2,000 people in the past week.
On one recent night, around a hundred people arrived on the outskirts of the town of Makhmour, in Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, having fled violence.
The journey ended in a long-awaited reunion for some families torn apart by war. Sheikh MatarKurdi Al Bijari had left his home in the town of Al Zab, south of Mosul, for the city of Kirkuk in 2014 but was forced to leave his wife, daughter and son behind. When they fled to Makhmour in late March, Al Bijari travelled to meet them.
“Today is a very happy day for me because I am finally reunited with my wife and my kids. I hadn’t seen them for a year and a month,” he said, after tearfully hugging his family.
Until the beginning of 2015, civilians could move easily between Kirkuk and IS-held areas, but more recently the front lines have become almost impassable.
Al-Bijari said that his tribesmen were being targeted by IS fighters, and that those with family members in the Iraqi army or with Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, were singled out. The militants have been moving these families ever deeper into their territory, making it harder to escape.
Once those fleeing war arrive in peshmerga-controlled areas, they are first vetted. The peshmerga troops have been keeping new arrivals in two fenced-off soccer courts on the outer edge of Makhmour while they carry out security screening, including checking mobile phones for messages.
Lt. Col Mahdi Younis, a peshmerga officer, said his forces need to ensure there are no IS sympathizers among the displaced civilians. He said that once the checks have been carried out, the new arrivals are moved to a nearby camp. This camp, located in an abandoned youth and sports center, is now home to 2,000 people.
The UN estimates that there are 3.3 million internally displaced people across Iraq. The country has witnessed a surge in violence as government forces battle to contain the IS group, which swept across Iraq in 2014 and still holds large swaths of territory in the north and west of the country.
The recent arrivals to Makhmour described a harrowing nighttime journey, after families made use of some bad weather and a lull in fighting to escape. Many of them left all their belongings behind or threw them away by the roadside when they could no longer carry them.
A few people were separated from their relatives on the way, and appeared in shock at the suddenness of their flight.
Many were clearly relieved to have left IS territory behind. Men who had just arrived were lighting their first cigarettes with visible impatience. Dakhr Abu Jasim, a 28-year-old who had been in Makhmour for several days, said the first thing he did after arriving here was to get a shave. Under IS’s strict interpretation of Islam, smoking is not allowed and men must let their beards grow.
By last Thursday, the rain had stopped and a strong sun was beating down on the families crowded in the soccer courts. Except for a few cabins, there was no cover.
“We struggled a lot. We are very tired. This kid was barely walking yesterday. I was pushing him to walk. And this morning he couldn’t walk anymore,” said IsraBadran, a 22-year-old mother of three, pointing toward her five-year-son, Ali.