SHINGAL, Kurdistan, Iraq – Sunrise in Shingal is a beautiful sight, framed by a towering tan mountain. A young boy takes his goats out for pasture in a dry riverbed. The beauty is in contrast to recent events here.
In November Kurdish Peshmerga overran ISIS and liberated Shingal City, uncovering the mass graves of Yazidis who had been massacred in August 2014.
In a small house north of the ruined city, a group of Kurdish de-mining experts have made their base camp. A large armored vehicle, specially manufactured in Kuwait for de-mining operations, guards the entrance, and Kurdish men in fatigues stand sentry duty.
At night they shine their high-powered flashlights on the neighboring hills to guard against attacks by ISIS. In a corner of the compound are plastic barrels that were once rigged with TNT to explode but have been dis-armed. At night the men chat around a blazing fire, drinking copious amounts of tea and smoking.
Food and basic niceties are scarce here, a generator provides intermittent electricity.
The front line with ISIS is less than a dozen kilometers away.
In the region of Shingal, called Sinjar in Arabic, the power of the Kurdish war against ISIS is in full display.
In August of last year ISIS overran a huge swath of territory from the Syrian border, over hundreds of villages and up to the Tigress river. In those days this area was disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraq’s central government.
When ISIS took this area 300,000 Yazidis, a religious minority whose members inhabited the plains on both sides of Mount Shingal, became refugees. Some 5,000 women were sold into slavery and more than 1,000 men and elderly Yazidi women were massacred by ISIS in what many describe as a genocide.
When Kurdish forces took back the area around Shingal City in November, the concept was that eventually the Yazidi refugees would return.
Those present don’t mince words about the 70,000 Arabs who once inhabited Shingal City. They supported ISIS and they will not come back, most everyone interviewed agrees.
“The methods [ISIS] used are similar to Saddam’s Ba’ath party, and we say, ‘the son of a snake, is a snake,” one of the Peshmerga soldiers says.
The extent of ISIS destruction, the unexploded bombs and traps and tunnels, and Yazidi fears mean that repopulating this region will take a long time, say locals and refugees. Only a skeleton of civilian population is in Shingal.
A few shop owners, and a mayor living in a tent.
The Yazidis who once lived on these plains have joined the Kurdish forces by the thousands, whole villages of civilians now transformed into an armed fighting force.
The head of intelligence in the city now is a Yazidi. A Yazidi Kurdish government representative carries a silver handled pistol in his belt and a Russian-made sniper rifle.
No one takes chances now, after what ISIS did last year.
To even begin rebuilding a civilian society, security must be brought to the towns and villages that have been re-taken.
But Kurdish forces lack basic equipment and enough support from the Western coalition. The de-mining team, working everyday, away from their family sometimes for six months on end, is symbolic of this problem.
The first man awake from the team is Maj. Hussein Yusef, a spry man in his late 30s. In the early morning hours, he does calisthenics and goes for a short run. He’s preparing for a long day of work securing the destroyed Cty of Shingal. His colleague Maj. Adel Sleman, is in charge of this de-mining unit.
Paunchy, he recalls how he served eight years in Saddam’s prisons. For the last 19 years he has been an expert in de-mining. He trained with the Americans, but his unit lacks the basic necessities of a Western military power. One of his soldiers jokes that all their “engineering” expertise comes down to using pliers to cut a wire. “Handasah, Handasah, clip, clip” he jokes, using the word for engineering in Kurdish, making a scissors motion with his hands.
There are no armored vests, no robots to blow up ordnance, the methods used are rudimentary and deadly. “It’s a suicide mission,” says one of the men.
In Shingal the unit confronts an entire city now in ruins and destroyed by war.
Houses were pancaked by coalition airs trikes, rubble is everywhere. It’s a post-apocalyptic world that reminds one of the cult classic Mad Max.
During a year and a half of occupation, ISIS dug tunnels beneath the houses, placed explosives inside houses, booby- traps and IEDs.
For a month the Kurdish forces have been clearing 100 places a day, so that eventually life can return to this place.
They see many similarities in their struggle with the issues Israel faces.
“We both suffered a lot, but Israel has its own state,” says Maj. Hussein.
Maj. Adel recalls that in his town of Akre there were many Jews before 1948, “we lived together, sometimes even in the same house.” But the wars against Saddam and now against ISIS have taken their toll on everyone in his unit.
“I lost 12 men in my extended family, and two cousins,” Maj. Adel says.
The men are interested in the methods Israel uses to confront IEDs, either in fighting Hamas or Hezbollah.
“The Peshmerga lost six men recently from the same family because they don’t have the right weapons, they can’t stop ISIS suicide truck bombs,” Maj. Hussein says. These are hard men who have seen a death and life struggle against extremists.
“It’s not my job to decide which Daesh fighter goes to heaven or hell, but rather to send them to God to decide,” says Hussein. “There is no country in the world dealing with explosives like we Kurds, we are de-mining everyday, when I trained with the Americans they didn’t confront such an extent [as we have with ISIS].”
Maj. Adel shows off a video of his men exploring tunnels made by ISIS. It’s similar to Hamas methods in Gaza, they say. “Israel and the Kurds have similar enemies around us, we are struggling for our state.”