Returning families, Iraqi troops on road from Irbil to Q-West airbase
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 1, 2016
QAYARA, Iraq — Traffic on the road from the Kurdish capital Irbil to towns and villages south of Mosul is largely made up of refugees returning to homes recently liberated from the Islamic State and Iraqi troops headed for Mosul, the last militant stronghold in Iraq.
Tens of thousands of civilians fled to Irbil when the Islamic State rampaged through the area two years ago. They sought sanctuary in a city that has been virtually untouched by the war raging nearby, its rhythm of daily urban life posing a stark contrast to the devastation in villages recently recaptured from the Islamic State by Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces.
On the road southwest out of the city, trucks and buses full of civilians heading home must pass through multiple checkpoints manned by the peshmerga and Iraqi army soldiers still wary about surprise attacks by militants operating behind the front lines.
The return of displaced people comes at a good time for authorities, who expect hundreds of thousands of civilians to escape Mosul as fighting there increases.
Many of those returning home from Irbil over the weekend, were traveling to villages near Qayara Airfield West, where U.S. forces are providing support fire and advising Iraqi commanders during the Mosul campaign. U.S. military vehicles aren’t part of the traffic.
American personnel and supplies headed for Qayara have been arriving by air since the runway reopened in early October following repairs by Air Force engineers.
The road passes through Makhmour, where the Islamic State advance toward Kurdistan was stopped by the Kurds in August 2014. The site of the battle is marked by a collection of blackened, battle-damaged military vehicles destined for the scrapyard.
Faisal Hammed, 25, a police officer from Qayara, was on the road Sunday in a convoy of three trucks and two busses carrying 70 men, women and children from eight families.
Waiting to pass a checkpoint in Makhmour, Hammed sat at the wheel of a large blue truck. In the back were a dozen women, boys and girls sitting on top of a collection of mattresses and furniture.
The father of three said he fled to Irbil after the Islamic State killed his uncle and daughter by firing into their home. He feared that he would be targeted after the militants obtained a list of members of the police force.
“We knew they were terrorists and wanted to kill everybody,” he said.
The displaced civilians share the road with convoys of Iraqi troops and military vehicles headed to and from the front lines.
One of the soldiers headed for the front, Pvt. Hussein Abdullah, 35, a Sunni from Mosul, was in Dohuk when the militants came to his home town in 2014. His parents are still in Mosul, where his father works as a mechanic. Abdullah said he hadn’t seen them since the city fell to the Islamic State.
The militants told people in Mosul that they would help them, as fellow Muslims, to fight the government, but everything went wrong after they arrived, he said.
“They fought with the people and killed them and destroyed the churches and stole from the banks and destroyed Iraqi culture in Mosul,” he said.
Between Makhmour and Qayara, the road surface is scarred by the battle. Every mile or so, the asphalt changes to dirt and stone where someone has filled in culverts that were blown up, presumably to slow the advance of opposing forces. Some of the craters caused by the roadside bombs are big enough to swallow a bus.
Villages on the east side of the Tigris River are almost completely abandoned except for the occasional “Ali Baba” — looters scavenging for items the Islamic State neglected to pilfer or destroy.
Some buildings have been flattened by the fighting. Others are riddled with bullet holes and one has Arabic graffiti scrawled on it that reads: “Long live Iraq, Death to the Islamic State.”
Two large sections of the main bridge over the river near Qayara are missing, possibly victims of the same saboteurs who blew up the culverts.
To get to the other side, traffic is diverted several miles downstream, through a village and along a dirt road to a pleasant, grassy area where the Iraqi army guards a one-lane pontoon bridge. Troops have festooned the area with colorful flags and tents.
On the west side of the river many of the houses are still empty. But shops are already open in Qayara’s main street despite at least a dozen nearby oil fires that blanket the town with black smoke.
Hammed said his own home was destroyed by the militants, who stole all his possessions. He’s planning to stay with relatives while he rebuilds. And he doesn’t expect to be the only person relying on the kindness of others.
“Now families will come from Mosul to Qayara. We can take them into our homes because we know what it is like to be displaced,” he said.