There was panic in June when militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Thousands of civilians fled as the Sunni militants set about destroying Shia and Christian religious sites.
Hamdaniya is a 10-minute car trip east of Mosul. Its residents—including many Christians—packed up and left to escape ISIS. The Iraqi army had disintegrated, but Kurdish peshmerga militia from the north stood firm. They counter-attacked in Hamdaniya and pushed ISIS out.
Now the town is the front line separating the Islamists from civilized Iraq. With the Kurds holding the line, many Christians are returning to Hamdaniya.
The zeravani, an elite Kurdish paramilitary force, is the main force in Hamdaniya. Italian federal police helped to train the zeravani—and they’re better equipped than many peshmerga units.
The fighting over the town was brief but intense. ISIS shelled Hamdaniya with artillery it has seized from the Iraqi army. The barrage was random. Town residents said it was meant to kill civilians and spread fear.
The zeravani mobilized in the regional capitol Erbil—and headed for Hamdaniya. The Kurds were able to pinpoint ISIS artillery positions and hit them with their own cannons
ISIS retreated to preserve their guns. The zeravani secured Hamdaniya and began fortifying the town.
They built a huge earthen berm that stretches from one side of Hamdaniya to nearby Ali Rush village. The berm is as high as seven feet at some points.
The zeravani added foxholes, bunkers, machine-gun emplacements and observation posts.
The Kurds also patrol the line in armored Humvees that they apparently grabbed from stockpiles the Iraqis had abandoned. A bullet hole in Humvee’s window is a reminder that, however calm it might be now, the front line is a dangerous place.
A peshmerga press officer explained that Hamdaniya is strategically important. Whoever holds the town also controls several important roads leading to other communities. If ISIS were to take Hamdaniya, it could quickly capture neighboring towns, too.
Brothers Melat and Ruwat Sabah run a bike shop in Hamdaniya with their friend Aysen Talal. All three are Christians. They said they were terrified before the zeravani arrived.
“We’re scared of da’ash”—the Arabic acronym for ISIS—“and what they do to minority groups.”
When the shelling began the three fled to Ainkawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil. They took only their cars and some clothing with them. They did not expect to be able to return home. Ever.
But they ended up being gone for five days.
The peshmerga guaranteed their safety. They and some other residents made their way back to Hamdaniya. Slowly, life is returning to the town.
Not everyone fled. George Behnam Polis, a 56-year-old chemical engineer, stayed throughout the shelling. An Iraqi Catholic, Polis said he remained behind because he wanted to help keep safe the young people who also stayed.
He said he wasn’t afraid during the shelling because he knew the pesh would defeat ISIS. When the Kurdish fighters deployed in Hamdaniya, Polis wanted to fight alongside them.
Aws Nama Yono, a 27-year-old Catholic, also stayed behind. He’s lived in Hamdaniya his whole life and said he had no intention of ever fleeing. “It’s my country,” he explained. “I’ll die here.”
“If you don’t die for your town, you will die for what?” Yono added. He said if ISIS comes to his house, he’ll shoot them with his rifle.
Hamdaniya is relatively safe, but ISIS fighters prowl the outskirts. While War is Boring visited a Kurdish officer in the town, an old man—a member of the Shabak minority—arrived from the nearby village of Omar Khan.
The night before, ISIS had come to Omar Khan and taken everything the man owned—his car, his food, his livestock and even his furniture. They also kidnapped 18 members of his family, all of them male.
The militants took the men because they are related to a pesh fighter. Before leaving Omar Khan, ISIS destroyed a Shia temple. That night the militants also killed three people in neighboring Tabak village.
The zeravani quickly helped Omar Khan’s 80 families to evacuate. To keep ISIS fighters from sneaking in, the Kurds set up one exit—and asked a resident to check each person as they departed.
You can follow photographer Matt Cetti-Roberts on Twitter at @unknownsnapper and Kevin Knodell at @KJKnodell. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.