Bashiqa (Iraq) (AFP) – Dilshad Salim stares in disbelief at the devastated ruins of his hometown Bashiqa in northern Iraq several days after Kurdish forces took it back from the Islamic State jihadist group.
“This was my cousin’s place,” he says, pointing at the ruins of a tile shop, then to a gutted building across the street: “This was my uncle’s place.”
It is the first time that Salim — or any of his family — have been back to Bashiqa since IS fighters took the town in August 2014 and the population fled en masse.
Once a bustling community on the road leading to Turkey, it was a melting pot of different ethnic groups and beliefs that was famed for its olives and local liquor arak.
Now it is a ghost town of mangled buildings and rubble — flattened by ferocious air bombardments and fighting to reclaim it from the jihadists.
“Everything is destroyed — my home is destroyed totally,” says Salim, who worked in the Iraqi oil ministry.
“I can’t tell my mother what has happened.”
Salim is from the Yazidi religious minority, viewed as heretical by IS and targeted for particularly vicious treatment that saw men executed and women kidnapped as sex slaves.
Yazidis were the largest community in Bashiqa — a town just east of Mosul, now IS’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, that also had a large Christian population.
But Salim says many will never feel secure enough again to return to the town, even if IS has left.
“People say that this time we can be safe, but next time I don’t know what I can do — maybe the girls will be captured again and the old and young people killed,” Salim says.
“I think all people want to escape from this land, from Iraq,” he says.
“It depends on the situation — maybe I can stay, maybe I can’t.”
– ‘There is no hope’ –
Across town Mohammed Mahmud, a Muslim, is rooting through the burned-out wreckage of what used to be his small supermarket on the side of the road to Turkey.
He shows off a picture of his two elder sons and the dust-covered videotape of his wedding that he has salvaged from his home.
In the more than two years since he fled, the 35-year-old has had another son who has never seen his hometown, and he has little idea when he will bring him back.
“I need guarantees before we come back to live here,” Mahmud says.
He wants Bashiqa to be incorporated into the Kurdish-controlled area and not to be run from Baghdad.
“If we stay under these authorities it will take a thousand years to rebuild.”
Mahmud has come back with Yusuf Latif, a neighbour from the Shabak minority, who ran a shop selling window frames just across the road.
“I didn’t expect to find this — I thought I would come here and find something that would give me hope, but there is no hope,” he says.
For now, though, even if civilians wanted to return to the area they cannot.
As in other towns and villages that they have been pushed out of, IS left Bashiqa strewn with booby traps and it is riddled with munitions from the fighting.
The Kurdish forces now in control are sweeping the area for any hidden dangers.
“So far we have found some 200 IEDs here,” says Kurdish deminer Bashir Nadir.
He says the deminers have begun finding more sophisticated devices in Bashiqa with decoy wires designed to snare those trying to defuse them.
As proof of the ongoing threat, a little later a Kurdish team drags two gas canisters found stuffed with explosives into a hole dug in a sandy field on the edge of town.
After laying a charge and retreating several hundred metres (yards), they detonate them, sending up a cloud of dust and smoke into the sky.