BASHIQA, Iraq - Captain Shimal throws a few shards of a broken wooden window frame into a large metal pot. The fire inside is just starting to burn and the desperately cold hands around it are finally able to absorb the heat from the flames.
It is early December and the temperatures in the northern Iraqi town of Bashiqa, 13 kilometres east of Mosul city, are already below freezing. The fire – and the warriors sitting around it – are the only signs of life in an area that has been completely destroyed by war. The area is littered with broken window frames both inside and outside the shops. This was once Bashiqa’s largest marketplace, but now it lies completely gutted.
There used to be dozens of shops selling everything from olives and pickles, to clothes and shoes. Now nothing remains.
Bashiqa is one of the towns freed in recent weeks by Iraqi government and Kurdish forces, backed by an international coalition and supported by a mixture of militias, in their broad push against Daesh.
As the crackling of the burning wood breaks the silence, Captain Shimal begins to tell a story. Four of the armed men sit round the fire listening intently as he speaks of a fierce battle that had raged on for days before peshmerga forces finally prevailed.
“This is the site of the harshest battle between peshmerga and Daesh forces,” Captain Shimal said. “Daesh snipers were all around us. They occupied many of these structures before they were demolished.”
“We had to use mortars to collapse buildings on top of Daesh snipers, burying them under the ruins,” the captain said.
Shimal is a veteran of the peshmerga forces’ “Asaish” unit, a backup militia that did cleanup operations in the aftermath of a battle. But the fighting at Bashiqa’s Azawi market had required the captain and his unit to join the fighting earlier than usual.
As the peshmerga fighters closed in, Daesh resorted to the methods it had mastered over years of fighting Iraqi forces.
“There was a wave of suicide attacks against our positions. And if this didn’t prove effective, they would lure our fighters into traps and set off their explosives,” said Shimal, his men nodding in agreement.
Thousands of improvised explosives and mines were left behind by Daesh fighters, according to Kawa Sekany, the chief coordinator for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Bashiqa. Sekany’s men had been digging for days around Bashiqa, with the help of French and British anti-mining experts.
As we walk around Azawi, Sekany points to a round of anti-tank ammunition mounted on a stone.
“We use the rounds as markers. Once a mine or explosive is found, my men place these shells on top as a safety precaution,” he said. But it was slow going. “Three of my men have been killed and we have only cleared twenty percent of the area,” Sekany said.
As we walked further into the collapsed market, we came across a large structure with a caved-in roof.
“This used to be a wedding hall but it was destroyed [well before] the battle,” said Sangar, a resident of Bashiqa who had fled the town two years earlier. He has only just returned, upon its liberation. Sangar told us that Daesh had destroyed the wedding hall because it belonged to the Yazidi religious minority, which it views as devil worshippers.
Daesh has been accused of committing war crimes against the Yazidis, and Iraqi forces discovered Yazidi mass graves around Mosul and Sinjar. Daesh has also been accused of using Yazidi women as sex slaves.
‘’I had my engagement ceremony at this wedding hall in 2013,” Sangar said. He was heartbroken as he showed us pictures of his engagement, the broad smiles of that day now given way to sadness. ‘’I hope they rebuild this place and I attend more parties and functions here in the future,” Sangar said.
By Ali Mustafa, Faiza Ahmed and Hakan Hocaoglu