Erbil and Makhmour, Iraq – “I will die as a martyr. I will never abandon my kinsmen.”
These were the last words spoken by 40-year-old Sheikha Umaya to her husband. A few hours later, a bullet from a suspected Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) sharpshooter took her life.
“She was a strong woman,” her husband, Sheikh Hassan Farhan, tells Al Jazeera as he scrolls through photos his wife sent him from the front-line. In them, Sheikha Umaya appears proud and full of confidence, posing with heavy machine guns, pistols and ammunition.
“She never slept. When Daesh [ISIL] surrounded our village, she called upon every villager, male and female, and implemented a plan to defeat them,” Sheikh Hassan says. “I knew she would die in this battle. But there was no way to stop her.”
The family hails from al-Alam, a small village on the banks of the Tigris River. Earlier this summer, ISIL fighters quickly advanced on al-Alam’s border. Sheikh Hassan ran away, but his wife stayed. “I begged her to come along, but [for her] it was a matter of principle,” he says. Along with two of their children, he journeyed to the Kurdish capital Erbil; their two other children remained in al-Alam.
We've pushed the terrorists back in less time than they had come to the city of Makhmour.
Shortly after Sheikha Umaya’s funeral, ISIL fighters raised their black flag over the village. On the walls of the family’s house, they wrote: “Property of the Islamic State.”
Attacking the region from several sides, ISIL fighters have created front-lines all over the country – including one just 40km from the safe haven Erbil has become for many displaced residents.
Oil fields flame along both sides of the narrow highway to Makhmour, which connects Erbil to the surrounding war zone. Foreign investors who set up offices in the region have packed up and left.
Kamal Mustafa, 53, lives in Dibaja, the last town before the city of Makhmour. There are only a few houses in this small town, which Mustafa has promised to protect. “When Daesh attacked Makhmour, we had to bring our women to safety,” Mustafa says. “We brought them to Erbil and armed ourselves in order to protect our houses and our land.”
Mustafa lives with his family in a newly renovated house on the border of Dibaja. In the centre, he and his son run a supermarket.
“We’d closed the shop for a week to fight against Daesh alongside the Peshmerga fighters,” Mustafa says. “In only a couple of days, we managed to push them back over seven kilometres, and still, the Peshmerga are pushing them farther away every day.” The front-line is almost 10km from Mustafa’s house. He keeps his assault rifle close at hand, ready to fight whenever needed.
The morale of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters has risen remarkably since the United States and a coalition of 40 other nations publicly expressed their support this summer.
“After all these years, we are finally getting the recognition that we need from the international community,” General Sirwan Barzani tells Al Jazeera at his office at a command post in Makhmour. “Now we are receiving the support that is needed to feel strong. The weapons that they’ve promised will arrive soon, but even without these weapons we feel backed by the international community and that has a clear effect on our fighters.”
Kurdish security services are partly integrated into the national security system, receiving orders from Baghdad. But between 100,000 and 240,000 Kurds fight under the banner of the Peshmerga, under the command of Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani or his nephew, General Barzani.
“We’ve pushed the terrorists back in less time than they had come to the city of Makhmour,” General Barzani says. “And we are not planning to stop anytime soon. We’ll continue until they’ve left Kurdistan entirely.”
As General Barzani speaks with Al Jazeera, his phone rings: ISIL has launched another offensive. At lightning speed, pick-up trucks are loaded with heavy weapons and crates filled with ammunition. In an armoured car supplied by General Barzani, the fighters race from their command post.
As the convoy of Peshmerga cars drives through the local market, people are visibly startled. Some say the sounds of encroaching vehicles reminds them of the previous ISIL invasion.
At the last checkpoint, not far outside of the city, trenches run along both sides of the unpaved road. Ayut, 23, is among a small group of Peshmerga fighters who stand guard here, watching for ISIL fighters. When they approach, he fires rockets.
“They launch mortars towards us every day,” Ayut tells Al Jazeera, pointing at a deep pit in the ground beside him. “They launched that one earlier.”
Back in central Mahkmour, 35-year-old Daria Khalil also recalls a recent mortar strike. She gestures towards a pile of debris on the other side of the road.
“It was around this time, sunset, that a mortar attack destroyed the house of our neighbour,” says Khalil, who lives in a modest home with her husband and four children.
“The house went up in flames,” Khalil tells Al Jazeera. “And because of the explosion, all our windows, one by one, burst into pieces. The facade of our house is filled with bullets [from previous gunfire].”
Khalil left Makhmour shortly after the mortar strike, and later returned to find their house partly destroyed by ISIL fighters and robbed of all valuables. She says she is happy to be back, but still fearful.
“I can’t sleep any more,” Khalil says. “I feel I have to stay awake always, for the children.”