MAKHMUR, Iraq – It’s 7:30 p.m. on Sunday evening when two trucks, overflowing with scores of refugees, roll into a Kurdish Peshmerga checkpoint.
The sun is setting amid dark plumes of smoke rising into the pink and orange sky, from fires lit by Islamic State to obscure their positions from coalition aircraft. Several kilometers from here the Iraqi army is battling ISIS near Qayyarah, but these refugees have finally found safety.
The Kurdish Peshmerga here fear that the refugees may have ISIS members among them, however, and work in conjunction with the Sunni militia force Hajd al-Watani and the Iraqi army to unload the refugees and pass them through a security check.
It’s a symbol of the fractured Iraq that different groups of soldiers are here processing these people.
The Peshmerga arrive with water and snacks to hand out to the frightened refugees.
Children are crying. Young women scamper around looking for the bottles of water that are being distributed.
Women gather in a group and sit in a nearby field. Their clothes are caked in dirt.
Only a few sacks make up the belongings of 50 people.
They have no cell phones, no money, and only bits of bread some carried with them on the long journey. There are no international organizations here to aid or care for them.
Some of these people have walked as many as 45 kilometers through ISIS front lines and passed the Iraqi army, which many say they fear.
One woman frantically shows an ID to soldiers saying she’s looking for her son. He was injured by sniper fire and is in Erbil hospital, she says.
Other women who fled ISIS sit by a few makeshift tents. They’ve been here a few hours after fleeing the town of Baddir, south of Mosul. It’s mostly women and little girls in this group, sitting outside ripped tents with the sides flapping in the desert wind.
Litter, discarded water bottles, and takeaway containers are strewn over the ground.
Despite the depressing circumstances, the children run and play, smile and laugh.
They have a thirst for life, as if ISIS and the hell on the horizon has not been happening all around them.
One woman sits with a baby who was born six days ago.
“We wanted to leave the first day ISIS arrived,” she says, keeping her face covered. She is still visibly fearful of ISIS.
It took two years under the extremists before they were finally able to escape.
“When the Iraqi army came and bombarded our area, ISIS withdrew and we ran away,” she said.
Two women, speaking through a translator, explain that ISIS would never let them leave their homes, they would question them why their daughters weren’t wearing niqabs (full face veils) and black robes to cover their bodies.
“They’re little girls, they’re not married!” one woman exclaims.
Their daughters stand around curiously, some not wearing a head covering, the younger ones smiling at the visitors. Now they have the freedom to put on colored clothes and show their hair, if they like.
One woman says ISIS accused her son and his friend of smoking – in the extremist view of Islam, smoking is forbidden. They lashed the son as punishment. They accused him of smoking a second time and arrested him. ISIS would routinely come around to the houses, knock on the doors and ask why the men were not at the mosque. By the end, ISIS members would come to their homes and take their food, claiming they didn’t have any, according to the woman.
This is the face of the breakdown of Islamic State that has forced millions of refugees to flee over the last two years, and which has committed a genocide against minorities such as the Yazidi here.
The US-backed coalition, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi army all have been hoping to capture Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city and the last great stronghold of ISIS in Iraq – in the coming months and destroy the Islamic State. But that leaves millions of civilians, some with relatives who served with ISIS, in the middle.
For the Kurds standing guard, the refugees have become an economic burden. Many of the refugees, who are Sunni Arabs, fear the role of Shi’a militias and the Iraqi army in the liberation of Mosul, and are fleeing to the Kurdish region where they say they will be treated better.
As we prepare to leave and the refugees have been processed and searched, word comes from a Peshmerga source closer to the front line that another truck of refugees is coming.