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'There is no life under the Islamic State, there is only death'

Refugees from the Mosul region recount the harrowing details of surviving under IS and their desire to return to their homes
A child in the refugee camp in northern Iraq (Bostjan Videmsek)

DABAGA, Iraq – At the entrance to the Dabaga refugee camp, a group of boys and young men were waiting to return to the liberated villages east of Mosul. Some of the taller ones were wearing Iraqi army uniforms. All of them were Sunni Arabs. They spoke of revenge.

"Our time has finally come!" one of them spat.

"The Islamic State destroyed our homes and ruined our lives!" said another.

The Dabaga camp, 40km from Erbil, is the largest refugee camp in north Iraq. It is providing shelter for some 20,000 refugees. It is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Right now, 11 such camps dot northern Iraq. When they reach full capacity, they will provide for 120,000 refugees. This is about one-tenth of the population of the besieged Mosul.

The Dabaga camp, 40km from Erbil, is the largest refugee camp in north Iraq, providing shelter for 20,000 refugees. (Bostjan Videmsek)

The problem is that the number of people expected to flee the city in the wake of the intensifying offensive is significantly higher than that. In light of that fact, an additional camp had sprung up next to the old one.

It is called Dabaga 2, governed by UNHCR and UNICEF.

The new camp will probably be entirely devoted to the influx of the Mosul offensive refugees. And not only from Mosul. They will also come from its neighbouring villages, which are being reclaimed by the Iraqi government forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and various local militias.

As the fighting grows in scope and intensity, the frontline region is rapidly expanding.

Surviving the Islamic State

"In our village – Kalidyia, south of Mosul – we've seen heavy fighting between the Iraqi army and the IS. There were many casualties, and we ourselves barely got out of there with our lives. We arrived here to this camp three days ago. We've made our way straight through the minefields. It was unspeakably dangerous!"

The words came pouring out of 20-year-old Amar Saad Nadimi. He and his group of teenage young men were adamant in their aim to join the Iraqi army and set off on a vengeful rampage.

The youngsters were waiting for transport to the front-line. They were convinced the army would snap them up – or at the very least one of the local militias would. They had no interest in staying at the refugee camp.

They said sitting around here made them feel painfully useless.

'It isn't natural. It's an abomination'

All the young men at the camp are systematically checked for any ties to IS. One of those whose review had perhaps been given a bit more due diligence than usual is Ali Muhammad, 30, hailing from the Haraband village near Mosul.

Ali told me he arrived at the camp on Wednesday, following a perilous and nerve-wracking escape. It was now Friday morning, and he was standing in front of a registration office and hoping for a timely permit to return back home.

"I'll be brief," he nodded at me: "There is no such thing as life under the Islamic State. There is only death."

(Bostjan Videmsek)

What followed was a horrifying monologue on public executions, beheadings and torturing women.

"It isn't natural. It is an absolute abomination, this 'society' they've set up… and we had no idea how to behave! So we mostly sat at home and kept our mouths shut. When the first opportunity presented itself, we ran for our lives."

Ali explained that he had been expecting the coalition's offensive. He was still hoping the suffering might end sooner rather than later. But he harboured no illusions that even the liberation of Mosul might end the war.

"I'm afraid my house might have been destroyed during the offensive," he said. "But I want to get back there as soon as possible."

On Monday, following a few hours of coalition bombing, the Iraqi army troops marched into Ali's village. He is quite happy to call them "liberators," but not everyone at the camp chooses to be so generous.

The protracted civil war has sown the seeds of sectarian hatred. Among a part of the Sunni population, the Iraqi army is seen as a Shia and therefore hostile force.

This is a large part of why IS has been so successful in Iraq Sunni areas. Its commanding core is home-grown, composed of Saddam's former officers who know both the land and the prevailing mentality.

"We know what IS is," said a Sunni sheikh from the Karash village in a rather furtive fashion, who preferred to go unnamed.

"We know who these people are, at least when it comes to our village. When they came, the Iraqi army simply pulled out. They left us completely high and dry. How can we trust them ever again?"

Testimonies

"When the offensive began, I was home with my family. Many of the IS fighters had retreated. There was a clash with the Iraqi army very near our village. And before that, the surrounding area was bombed by planes. We immediately fled for our lives."

This is the tale of Assad Hassan, 65, hailing from the Nukariya village near the ancient city of Nimrud.

(Bostjan Videmsek)

"At first," the grizzled, bearded man began. "At first some 20, maybe 30 IS men came to our village. This was two-and-a-half years ago. They said they would cooperate with the army and with the police. Then the army left, and the policemen remained.

"Then around 200 more men came and killed all the policemen. It was the beginning of great suffering for us."

Striking in his white jalabiya, Ahmed was equally striking for the deep dark bags under his eyes. In the 27 months of IS reign over his village, he witnessed numerous beheadings and other forms of public executions. A bulldozer and a steamroller were used for killing people.

IS also closed the schools. From then on, what passed for classes was confined only to the mosques. Books were strictly forbidden. Before long, the kids were learning how to count with the help of weapons. A bullet and a bullet equals two bullets.

Assad Hassan was convinced that he only survived the IS abattoir and the flight from his village through God's help.

"The fighting between the IS and the Iraqi army was horrendous. We threw ourselves into three different cars and drove. On the road, the car in front of us hit an explosive device. A few of the passengers died. All my 17 children and grandchildren survived. It was a miracle!"

Throughout the conversation, Assad spoke with quiet dignity, his tone completely liberated from all hate.

He was obviously grateful his family had come through hell seemingly intact.

'They are nothing. Pure nothing.'

By realistic standards, the Dagaba camp is peaceful and orderly. Every day more refugees arrive at the site – between 100 and 150 families on average. Before being allowed to enter, the men must undergo a rigorous but necessary checking procedure. The risk of IS fighters infiltrating the premises remains high.

Small shops have set up operation in the camp: at times, business seems to be thriving. Not that many Kurdish soldiers and policemen are around. Most schools in the camp are closed, since the governors had turned them into dormitories. As many as 20 people are sleeping in the same room. The stretch of ground between the old and new camp reeks of sulphur and excrement.

(Bostjan Videmsek)

Dishevelled children wearing football shirts are passing a ball around. The girls are playing among heaps of refuse. One boy dressed in an Iraqi army uniform is leaning against a mesh fence. Young men are smoking and talking politics. The radio is blaring about the IS attack on Kirkuk. The nearby road to the front- line sees ever new convoys of military vehicles.

In the camp, Ahmed Sultan approached, a tired and visibly traumatised 64-year-old theologian from southern Mosul.

"The Islamic State is a destroyer of Islam," he said.

"They are using counterfeited holy texts. They are lying and tailoring the prophet's words to their own sordid ends. They are the worst kind of criminals."

Ahmed and his family of seven arrived at the camp two weeks ago. If they hadn't fled their home, the entire family would have been massacred.

"Since I am an Islamic scholar, the terrorists were very clear they wanted me to become an imam and peddle their faith. I said no. That was when our problems began in earnest."

After taking over south Mosul, IS banned the reading of books (except for one), shaving, smoking, drinking alcohol, watching Western TV programmes and using the internet. The factories and the schools got closed down. Women were forced to cover their faces.

According to Ahmed Sultan, IS were killing people in public, often for the most innocuous possible infractions, sometimes for no reason at all.

"On day one of their rule, they tore the earrings from my daughter's ear. An Islamic tax, they said!"

As he spoke, Ahmed's face twisted itself into a smile, but it soon furrowed up again.

"Since I refused to follow their orders, they came after me in every way they could think of. They even kidnapped my youngest son for a week. They wanted to turn him into a killer, like they did with other boys his age. Yes, it's true, they take innocent children and turn them into killers. They teach them how to shoot and turn them against their parents."

Even after this, the theologian from Mosul refused to conform to the group's demands, so they went and beheaded his nephew.

"I knew we had to get away from there," the old man remembered and started to cry. Some of his friends and neighbours helped him to flee the city. Many of his peers did not share his good fortune and died on the journey. One day after Ahmed left, IS blew up his house.

"What is Daesh [IS]? They are nothing, pure nothing. They are the destroyers of towns and murderers of men," the old theologian summed up his views, adding that his plan was to first make some money as a teacher in the camp, and then to eventually rebuild his home.

And also to till his fields once more, all of which have laid dormant for the past few years.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition