Makhmour, Iraq – Saad grabbed his infant son and the rest of their family and rushed out of Kherabardan in the early hours of March 26, as Iraqi forces entered their village at the southeastern tip of Nineveh province in northern Iraq.
Last month, Iraqi security forces and their allied tribal forces succeeded in pushing fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) out of the village, which lies on a vast plain.
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“Two men from our village died in the fighting, but we don’t know who killed them,” Saad, a man in his 20s who spoke under a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “Many cars and homes have been also damaged.”
ISIL had initially prevented civilians from leaving, hoping to use them as human shields to slow the advance of Iraqi forces.
Days after Saad fled his village, he was in the yard of a public building in the town of Makhmour, crammed with hundreds of people who fled the villages of Kherabardan, Koudila and Mahana. Local and international aid organisations had set up shop here. Kherabardan and Koudila were recently recaptured by the Iraqi army, while Mahana is still being fought over.
Saad and other residents were recently moved from this building to a nearby camp in Dibaga, which now houses around 2,500 people, according to Rizgar Ismael, the mayor of Makhmour.
As Iraqi and coalition forces battle to retake Nineveh, including its provincial capital, Mosul, tens of thousands more civilians are expected to flee to Iraq’s Kurdish region, already home to nearly two million internally displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees, according to the local government. Iraq’s Minister of Immigration and Displacement has estimated that as many as 750,000 people could flee Mosul and its surrounding areas amid operations to expel ISIL.
The situation in Makhmour illustrates how ill-prepared Iraqi and Kurdish authorities, and their international partners, are to manage such an influx. Inside the public building in Makhmour, people were lying on the floor, under staircases and in hallways, with bags of rubbish piled up nearby. The building is now designated as the “reception site” for incoming waves of people, where, among other things, background checks are conducted “to ensure ISIL elements won’t sneak in”, Ismael said.
Ismael says that as military operations progress, between 20,000 and 30,000 people along the eastern flank of the River Tigris are expected to head towards Makhmour. If the Iraqi army pushes towards the town of Qayyara on the western side of the river, as many as 120,000 people could be displaced, he said.
“Logic would tell you that those people in Qayyara would also head towards Makhmour, because they wouldn’t want to go to Mosul only to witness more fighting there,” Ismael said, noting that his administration was in urgent need of assistance from the Iraqi government and international aid organisations.
We especially need more help with health and hygiene matters. There are a lot of people with chronic diseases and many children who can contract diseases easily.
“We need help with housing the people,” he said. “But we especially need more help with health and hygiene matters. There are a lot of people with chronic diseases and many children who can contract diseases easily.”
The Kurdish and Iraqi governments have been under great strain in recent months, amid an economic crisis that has led to a steep drop in their budgets. Complicating matters, tensions still persist between local Sunni Arab communities and Shia members of the Iraqi army.
A number of displaced people in Makhmour told Al Jazeera that they felt they were being mistreated by Iraqi troops.
“They consider us all to be Daesh [ISIL],” said Mahmoud, a displaced man who spoke under a pseudonym. “They even damaged some of our cars and cursed us.”
Another man confirmed this, but added that not all soldiers treated them this way. “Some of them were good in their behaviour towards us,” he said.
Despite the challenges, new arrivals in Makhmour still say they appreciate being able to find refuge here after all that they have been through.
“We are out of hell,” said Um Bassam, a mother of eight, noting life under ISIL in Kherabardan was exceedingly difficult. “Let us get rid of this war … We don’t want to return to the village until it’s totally safe.”