KHAZIR, IRAQ – Empty plastic water bottles. An unopened can of chickpeas. Polyester blankets with pink and blue flowers. In this particular house, the water quenched the thirst of Islamic State fighters. The chickpeas kept them nourished, and the blankets provided comfort. An entrance to an underground tunnel is in the adjacent room, if an escape is necessary.
The building’s original function served as a house of worship for the Kakai, a minority ethnic group in Iraq, whose villages were overtaken by Islamic State fighters in the summer of 2014. They practice a mystical and secretive religion called Yarsen, and fled during the ISIS assault, fearing the Islamist group would target them specifically for their religion.
There is debate as to Yarsen’s relation to Islam – something that could have curried a small favor with ISIS – or if it’s a separate religion entirely.
In the Mosul governorate, around 10,000 Kakai lived either in the city or in small villages halfway along the Mosul to Erbil highway. Other minority groups include the Shabak, Christians and Turkmen.
When the Islamic State launched its offensive in the summer of 2014, the majority of these people were able to flee to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan. According to our driver Habebe Kakai, ISIS murdered 160 Kakai. Since then, 1,500 have volunteered to fight with the Peshmerga.
In late May, Peshmerga with Kakai volunteers liberated nine villages, including Khazir.
These villages will help close a circular front line surrounding Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s de facto capital in Iraq, before an offensive is launched on the city.
In mid-July, a colleague and I went to visit the villages to document the destruction caused by Islamic State. Kakai is a volunteer Peshmerga fighter and from the recently liberated village of Tulebend. Once home to around 500 families, today it is a mass of rubble.
We’re able to drive through this and similar villages – Mufti, Gezekan and Wardak – after peshmerga soldiers and Kakai volunteers cleared some of the area of improvised explosive devices. Over the course of a few weeks, bomb disposal units defused nearly 2,000 explosives.
One of our guides pulls out a cell phone to show us a picture of his brother. He was killed the week before while he was clearing mines. He was a father to five children.
What we see is an odd and depressing scene of destruction.
The images are at once familiar – those we see broadcast on international news that are so numerous and indistinct, they blur together and their impact becomes negligible.
But standing amidst the destruction is a different feeling entirely. We pass one home, a massive hole in the retaining wall is a grim window contrasted against normal items. The room was once someone’s office, a ceiling fan, tacky orange paint on the walls and a 1970’s inspired tile floor. It says something about the personality of its residents.
But now it’s just destroyed.
On our drive, we pass a flattened Yarsen temple. Its circular, cone-shaped roof sits on top of a mass of rubble, yet a planted flag on its top remains upright. The image is incompatible with the destruction.
There’s a difference between buildings forgotten by time, destroyed through neglect.
This is not the case here. The intent was to harm a population and destroy their hope by erasing their cultural landmarks.
The tomb of Said Hais – a revered figure in the Yarsen religion – is housed in a room with no roof and surrounded by crumbling walls. Yet Kakai have cleared a path to the prophet, exposing slightly cracked, polished tile. The tomb has a green cloth draped over it and piles of rock and debris litter the sides of the room. Habebe – while admittedly not religious – kneels to pray before the tomb.
Walking through the villages, we’re told to stay on the cleared road, to step in the footsteps of our guides into a few, select, clean homes.
In one home, we’re told that peshmerga removed 14 bombs; in one area, ISIS collapsed 20 family homes. We stand at a dirt path entrance to a demolished home when our minder notices a metal ring in the dust. He carefully extracts a two-inch long, fat, conical-cylinder, with a pin and ring attached to it. It’s a fuse that attaches to mortar rounds or is used to link up other explosives to set off a chain reaction of explosions.
These villages are so newly liberated; slogans and graffiti written by ISIS fighters still adorn the walls. There is a blue, spray-painted, Islamic State flag; a message in Arabic written next to it loosely translates to “The Islamic State exists on the backs of our martyrs.”
One of our peshmerga companions picks up a piece of white rock and crosses out the slogan. He offers instead, “Death to Baghdadi,” the leader of the Islamic State.
The relatively small number of loss of life of the Kakai – compared to other minority groups in Iraq, like the Yazidi, of which the UN estimates that in August 2014, ISIS murdered 5,000 and kidnapped between 5,000 and 7,000 women – is due to a combination of factors.
Habebe explains that when ISIS attacked their villages, they did so with explosives and mortar fire and not soldiers.
Their location, between 60 and 40 kilometers west of Erbil, gave them a relatively short distance to reach safety.
The Kakai knew they would be condemned to death by Islamic State, it wouldn’t be the first time in their history an Islamic fundamentalist group charged them as heretics and infidels.
We drive into the small village of Wardak and meet a group of Kakai volunteer soldiers camping out in one of the houses – they range in age from late teens to early 50s.
Ismael Hamid Salir, one of the older volunteer fighters, steps out to introduce himself. He points to a house next to the soldier’s base and explains that in 2009, al-Qaida tried to infiltrate the village with two, explosive-laden trucks. The villagers had gotten word that an attack would happen and stationed themselves to intercept the truck. Salir shot one of the drivers but was unable to stop an attack on the house he points out now. Eleven people died in that house, he says.
An article from September 10, 2009 in The New York Times describes a suicide bombing in Wardak that killed 25 people and wounded 43. It doesn’t attribute the attack to Al-Qaida, but instead to insurgents. The article credits peshmerga with defending against the attack.
“We don’t trust the Iraqi army,” Habebe, our driver, tells me. “We want to be protected by the peshmerga.”
Wardak sits right on the Khazir River – the flowing water allows for the rare occurrence of blooming fauna in the arid, and intensely hot Nineveh plains. Islamic State destroyed a bridge that crossed the river into Wardak, one of the main thoroughfares for villagers and the escape route in the summer of 2014. The deranged, twisted heavy iron and metal collapsed onto the opposite bank.
As the sun sets, it casts an orange glow on all that we see. We stop to go wash our hands in the water. Despite the destruction all around, the nearby river perfumes the air with a cool, clean and fresh smell. “It is a beautiful village,” our translator, a young Kurdish girl, says.
“It was a beautiful village,” I say too quickly, still stunned by the surrounding destruction.
She gives me a look, both calm and content. “It will be again.”