Inside Qaraqosh: A Town Liberated In The Fight Against The Islamic State
"They took my air conditioner!" Karam yells excitedly as he runs towards his house. "Those fuckers!
It's the first time he's seen it in more than two years, ever
since ISIS overran his hometown of Qaraqosh and all the residents fled. Two
members of a local Christian militia, known as the Nineveh Plains Protection
Unit (NPU), are escorting us around the abandoned and mostly destroyed streets.
We've been told the city has been 'cleared', but that's proving to be a very relative term in this war. A soldier will tell you they've cleared a village, only to have an ISIS fighter pop up a few hours later. Or there will be a sniper or a suicide bomber who has been hiding out for hours or days to carry out an attack.
ISIS attempts to hold off the much more heavily armed Kurdish
peshmerga forces and Iraqi forces at frontlines, but they also engage in
guerrilla insurgent tactics. The tunnels, improvised explosive devices (IEDs),
and vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs, or car bombs) have been
constants. ISIS doesn't mind leaving a guy behind to die fighting, and one
well-placed and accurate sniper can hold off dozens of men for days.
The more senior of the militiamen escorting us, Jamil, says that sometimes ISIS carries out attacks at night, popping out of their intricate network of well-built tunnels. The militia members tell us there have been strikes almost every night since they liberated the town a few days ago.
I hear later that a family was killed nearby when they arrived home to find two ISIS fighters hiding out. IEDs are also everywhere - hidden on roads or inside houses. ISIS turned a nearby church, part of which was built in the year 142 AD, into a mortar and IED factory. The chemical components and instructions are still lying on the floor.
"Some roads are safe, some aren't," Jamil says earlier when we ask if we are okay to drive down a certain street. This is not reassuring.
The offensive appears to be going quite well so far, although there have been some setbacks and it's entirely too early to gauge. One day it'll seem like ISIS is fleeing and giving up massive amounts of territory, others it will appear like it is putting up a valiant effort. Iraqi forces have just breached the gates of Mosul city proper, and things are expected to intensify with fighting in denser city areas as opposed to rural villages.
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Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga have been questionable regarding the release of accurate casualty counts but both have suffered dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths, with many more wounded. A lot of the issues that many predicted would come to a head, whether that is a huge humanitarian disaster or sectarian massacres, have yet to occur. But the real test comes inside Mosul, where ISIS has had years to reinforce its defences and will be reluctant to flee.
Street-to-street fighting, on dense city blocks, in areas packed with civilians, will see increased deaths both on combatants and civilian sides. Many more will flee. Many more will die.
After ISIS leaves, the real challenge begins. That challenge will be the rebuilding of cities, rebuilding the trust and psyche of the people, rebuilding state institutions and rebuilding a country. This is a country that has suffered grievously as far back as any Iraqi can remember. They will try to pick up the pieces, try to make sure those now participating in the fight against ISIS realise the Iraqi people will have suffered through enough fighting for a very long time.
In Qaraqosh, though, all that matters to Karam right now is that ISIS appears to have taken both his Sony PlayStation and his collection of expensive whiskey. He is pissed off. We're moving through his house with the two members of the NPU, which formed as a local militia in 2014 after ISIS took over the Christian areas. We're stepping gingerly because ISIS' reputation for IED placement is one of unparalleled skill (I've seen predictions that it could take 10 years to make sure the recently liberated city of Ramadi is clear of IEDs). The entire house has been ransacked in a thorough effort to find things of value. It's remarkable the amount of destruction ISIS is able to inflict. In every village, in every home I've been in, everything is trashed. A huge effort must have been required to do this home by home. And that's not even covering the damage the fighting has done. No building in the city is untouched.
The pressure of patrol: Members of the NPU Christian militia during a break from the streets
Qaraqosh is Iraq's largest Christian town and was taken by ISIS in the August of 2014. It's approximately 20 kilometres from Mosul, and it takes around 1.5 hours to get there from Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdish region. To get there, though, it is necessary to go past a dizzying array of checkpoints manned by an eclectic group of separate forces.
During the chaos of forward operations, if you have the right access to certain units, you can get places you are not supposed to be, right up to the tip of the spear driving into the Islamic State territory. But once an area is taken, the bureaucracy takes hold. And when there are numerous separate forces, with separate bureaucracies, separate permissions, and separate guys at checkpoints that want to exert their power, you end up spending the majority of the time trying to navigate checkpoints instead of reporting.
Every group in Iraq makes clear that they are the best fighters with the least support from the international community and the oldest weapons.
It is important to give a quick breakdown of the groups uniting, at least ostensibly, to dislodge ISIS. The Kurdish army is known as the peshmerga (who themselves are split along two different party lines and almost represent two distinct forces, and that doesn't even include other various small Kurdish militias with bases in Iran, Turkey and Syria). Then there is also the Shiite militias, Sunni militias, the Iraqi army - replete with the much revered special forces known as the Golden Division - and the Iraqi federal police, not to mention the coalition air support and American (and some other western countries') special forces. The Turkish army also has forces nearby, but the Iraqi government has demanded that it doesn't participate. There are also rumours of direct Iranian involvement, although there are already Iranian supported militia groups participating.
The future: It remains to be seen what will happen in the post-ISIS era
If it sounds confusing, it is. And therein lies the question that everyone is asking; what will happen post-ISIS, with all these different, heavily armed groups with competing agendas? Once you're rid of an external enemy that has united disparate forces in a common goal, that unity disappears. New goals form, and those goals may pit these forces against each other.
It has been especially strange to see the Kurdish peshmerga mixing with the Iraqi army. These forces have typically been at odds. The Kurds have a mostly autonomous region in the north, complete with a government, policies, and army. The Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government in Erbil constantly exchange threats and harsh words, accusing the other of misdeeds. It was a miracle of diplomacy to unite them in this push.
The first time I came to Kurdish Iraq for a reporting trip in 2012, the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army were threatening to go to war after the Iraqi army moved a new command centre close to a disputed city to which both Baghdad and Erbil lay claim to. And after ISIS first took Mosul in 2014, the Kurds began constantly insulting the Iraqi army, labelling them cowards who couldn't hold their own against the Islamic State. For now, though, there seems to be a new sense of unity as everyone has united against ISIS. The Iraqi army has certainly looked more impressive, especially the Golden Division. But no one knows how long that will last
War's destruction: Buildings in Qaraqosh were left decimated before Iraqi forces reclaimed the town
Our escorts in the NPU are aligned with the Iraqi army and make
sure to hold a giant Iraqi flag as we drive through town.
We pass through streets which are deserted and destroyed. Cement detritus, twisted cables, and mangled wires are everywhere, and you're left to wonder how it can ever be built back. Every store front, every building, is pockmarked or blown out. A burned out Humvee site over here, a tank parked in an alleyway over there. My colleagues and I compare it to different cities we've reported in; Qaraqosh is not unique in this devastation. It bears resemblance now to too many cities in Syria and Iraq that have suffered through years of this war.
Driving around the city is disconcerting. This is not unsettling in a frontline sort of a way where there are constant attacks, but in a "hundreds of men in different fatigues holding weapons walking around in an uninhabitable city with an ancient heritage" sort of way.
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Risking lives: Qaraqosh was under ISIS rule but NPU militia now monitor the town
Groups of fighters materialise down streets, in pickup trucks or vans or Humvees. For now, these men are a welcome sight. It means that the area is safe. But in due time, in what could be a month, or six months, or a year, all of these men will need to listen to their respective governments and leaders if these men are ever to put their guns down.
At one point, the NPU fighters go off to take the photographers into some destroyed buildings. Five men packed into a small flatbed truck pull up to me, wearing mismatched camouflage and civilian pants. I offer them cigarettes, and they ask me if there's any beer. I laugh, thinking they're kidding.
Karam comes by a few minutes later after talking to the men and points out that the destroyed shop they have just entered used to be a bar, and that they are, in fact, looking for booze. The men are Iraqi federal police, who, Karam says, have been accused of looting. The NPU guys say they have complained to Iraqi army officials about them coming to loot.
Looting is a significant issue in recently cleared areas, as it always is. Back in November, after Sinjar was retaken from ISIS, Yezidi families, who had been forced out of the area, were streaming back in and looting their Sunni Arab neighbours' homes. Questioned, they told us their reasoning. "They looted our homes when ISIS forced us out, and supported ISIS, so now we're looting theirs."
It is not all devastation and tragedy in Qaraqosh, however. When we arrive earlier in the afternoon, we walk into the NPU base to find two elderly women in black shrouds seated in one of the offices. They had been found by the NPU in the last day. Both had been held in the city for two years after ISIS took it over.
Karam recognizes one of the women, an 80-year-old with a faded cross tattoo on her wrist and missing teeth. "This is my aunt," he exclaims. "They just found her today!"
Generation to generation: Karam's aunt (right) refused to leave town when ISIS arrived and was found in the liberation
The aunt and Karam immediately begin talking as he tries to piece together what has happened. "For two years I've been asking about her, nobody knows anything," he says.
A priest is there, and she and another woman who was also held join him in prayer. "I'll forget the past," she says to me. "For two years, I was just crying."
Tearful reunions like this are happening all over the outskirts of Mosul, mostly in the internally displaced person's camps that have sprung up to deal with the incoming mass migration of IDPs fleeing ISIS territory. Families who have been split up and were unable to see each other or even communicate for years are reuniting.
I try to talk to Karam's aunt for a bit to figure out how her survival is possible, how she lived under ISIS for two years and managed to get out mostly unscathed. She says she just stayed home. They sometimes brought her food. She wouldn't let them come into the house. They tried to move her to Mosul but they couldn't find a place for her.
The language barrier is a bit of a problem, and Karam and I don't want to push as she's frail and clearly been through a lot. It's hard to make sense of it
Road to recovery: The future is unclear for the wrecked town of Qaraqosh
Earlier in the week I interview two university students, Christian women, whose dorm ISIS occupied for a period during a daring a raid in the city of Kirkuk that ended with dozens killed. The jihadists broke into their house and sat on beds they were hiding under yet didn't discover them. They emerged unharmed. Again, I press as much as I can, doubtful at times, but the story checks out despite it seeming unfathomable. I still can't make sense of it.
An estimated 1.2 million civilians are still living under ISIS rule. There are dire warnings of a looming humanitarian disaster, with hundreds of thousands of these civilians expected to flee the imminent fighting. That's a lot of food, water and shelter needed in areas already overburdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq. Humanitarian agencies have been sounding the alarm, expressing concern that there's not enough resources.
Fear is also prevalent on both ends. There are fears that the Iraqi military or the Kurdish forces will exact revenge or arbitrarily punish male Sunni Arabs coming from ISIS territories based on the assumption that they're either ISIS members or ISIS supporters. There is also fear from those forces of letting ISIS supporters get away or of sleeper cells sneaking into Iraqi and Kurdish cities disguised as IDPs only to unleash hell.
There's also concern over the high potential for extrajudicial killings. This is especially true with the Shiite militias, who are seen as undisciplined, sometimes sectarian, and some of whom are backed by Iran and not partial to human rights concerns or respecting the Iraqi army or the peshmerga directives.
A survey came out last week that pointed to Iraqis as the most
generous people in the world to strangers. One hopes they will also be generous
in their mercy when it comes to the months ahead. But the challenges are long
and hard. How will the soldiers, many of whom have had their homes destroyed by
ISIS, their lives shattered and their love ones lost, respond to those who they
perceive as being supporters? How will the 15-year-old Sunni who calls Mosul
home, gang pressed into joining ISIS after being convinced he needed to defend
his home and his people, be dealt with? And how does one assure a population
that they will receive justice for some of the most harrowing crimes of the
And most importantly, what will become of the all the separate groups of armed men when they are no longer needed to fight ISIS? Many fear the country will not stop bleeding when the last black flag is removed from Mosul and replaced by Iraqi colours.
Christian message: A cross seen on the flak jacket of a member of the NPU
As Karam leads us to one of the two cafes he owned, surveying his city and reflecting on the damage, an NPU member points out an ISIS flag which is still fluttering atop an extremely tall antenna tower in Qaraqosh. Karam says it is not as bad as he thought it was going to be and, despite all the devastation, he is in high spirits.
"'I'm happy, I am," he says. "It's like when you meet your girlfriend after three years and she looks old and tired but you know she will be beautiful again."
He wants the future of Qaraqosh to be decided by the Christian community and the NPU. His trust in other factions isn't high. "We just want our city safe, and we want those guys (ISIS) far away from us."
We make our way to his café. He's carrying two photo albums he rescued from his home, full of family pictures. He tells us of a friend who stayed behind in the city and joined ISIS. He said he called him at one point after everyone fled, and the man told him he'd try to protect the café.
When we arrive, it's severely damaged but salvageable. Karam disappears inside, despite our IED fears, and comes back with his certificate from the government that allowed him to open up the business.
He points to the house of his former friend, the man who joined ISIS. It's two doors down from the café, and has graffiti on the front wall which states that it belongs to a Sunni Muslim and should be spared. It was a message for fellow ISIS members when they ran rampant over the city.
It's getting dark, and we're about leave. I ask Karam if he minds if I pee on the street of his town. He points down the block, and tells me to pee on his former friend's house instead, and laughs.