Mufti village, near Mosul – Lieutenant-Colonel Omar Mawlud, 51, and his men look at a hole in the ground with bewilderment. It’s one of the three entrances to a tunnel dug by the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Mufti to protect them from air strikes by the United States-led international coalition.
A few metres away, the head of an ISIL suicide bomber, unrecognisably severed, still lies on the ground. “He chased one of our men who went to check out the tunnel,” says Mawlud, who is an officer in the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. “Then he blew himself up and injured our fellow Peshmerga too.”
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Fearing the presence of explosives or suicide bombers, the Peshmerga forces did not want to take the risk of entering and inspecting the whole length of the tunnel and set it on fire.
It felt like I was born again. It was like when you see your mother after a long time. The village and the land is everything to us.
Last March, Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched the Nineveh Liberation Operation which they said was the first episode in a series of battles to recapture the northern Nineveh province. Progress, however, has been slow owing to heavy resistance by ISIL fighters.
The tunnel is one of a few dug by ISIL fighters here to use as a shelter against air strikes or to facilitate movement between houses underground. On Monday Mufti, along with eight other villages, was captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga. The villages, located just some 20km east of the ISIL stronghold of Mosul, fell under ISIL control in August 2014.
Nineveh is a culturally rich province located 400km northwest of Baghdad. The villages in this part of the Nineveh Plain, located east of the province, are home mostly to religious minority groups such as Kakais and Shabaks. The few thousand residents fled when ISIL took over, fearing massacres as had happened previously to members of the Yazidi minority on the western side of Nineveh province.
The Kurdish forces hope this offensive will increase pressure on ISIL in Mosul. A few kilometres south of the once Shabak-populated Mufti lies the village of Majidiya, known by the locals as Kulabor.
Salah Aziz, 46, had his eyes filled with tears when, after nearly two years, he finally got a chance to see the village where he spent almost all his life. “It felt like I was born again,” said Aziz, a Kakai. “It was like when you see your mother after a long time. The village and the land is everything to us.”
The Kakai faith, also referred to as Yarsanism, is a syncretistic mystical faith that is believed to have originated in Kurdish-dominated parts of western Iran in the 14th century. Aziz, who now lives in the nearby Khabat area, had just returned from the funeral of four fellow Kakais who were killed when they had gone to inspect their home in the village of Tullaband which had been taken from ISIL on May 30.
The incident illustrates the tremendous challenge that villagers in this area now face: How to get rid of the many bombs and booby traps planted by ISIL in their villages.
As things stand right now, Aziz and other former residents of these villages, who spoke to Al Jazeera, say they have no ambition to go back to their homes in the near future. Many homes are destroyed and there are no public services such as electricity. On top of that, ISIL is just a couple of kilometres away and the area is within the group’s firing range.
On the day Al Jazeera visited the area, a couple of mortar rockets landed in the villages where the Peshmerga forces are currently gathered.
Despite the physical damage, ISIL’s attacks in the Nineveh plains appear to have left a more enduring and profound impact. The group’s atrocities and efforts at pitting communities against one another has deepened communal rifts in the Nineveh plains where a diverse range of religious and ethnic groups live.
Aziz says there is no longer any trust between them and a number of the neighbouring villages from where some joined ISIL. “I personally don’t see much of a future for us or our future generations here,” said Aziz.
Amid the vast plains here, Peshmerga Private Ali and colleagues look at the villages far off in the distance where columns of black smoke are arising just as military operations there ended.
The slim fighter, who manned a heavy-calibre machine-gun, has been in the thick of the fight here and is still covered in dust head to toe. He is euphoric about the success and says this is the beginning of the return of life to this area. “We will advance beyond the current lines,” he said as he points east toward Mosul. “Then this area will become safe and people can return to their homes.”
Although no accurate figures are available, over the past couple of years many members of religious minorities such as Kakais, Shabaks and Yazidis left the country for destinations in the west.
“For many of us, there is nothing left to go back to,” said Aziz.