MAKHMOUR, Iraq (AP) — Fighting between Iraqi forces and militants affiliated with the Islamic State group close to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, has displaced over 2,000 people in the past week.
On one recent night, around a hundred people arrived on the outskirts of the town of Makhmour, in Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, having fled violence.
The journey ended in a long-awaited reunion for some families torn apart by war. Sheikh Matar Kurdi al-Bijari had left his home in the town of al-Zab, south of Mosul, for the city of Kirkuk in 2014 but was forced to leave his wife, daughter and son behind. When they fled to Makhmour in late March, al-Bijari travelled to meet them.
"Today is a very happy day for me because I am finally reunited with my wife and my kids. I hadn't seen them for a year and a month," he said, after tearfully hugging his family.
Until the beginning of 2015, civilians could move easily between Kirkuk and IS-held areas, but more recently the front lines have become almost impassable.
Al-Bijari said that his tribesmen were being targeted by IS fighters, and that those with family members in the Iraqi army or with Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, were singled out. The militants have been moving these families ever deeper into their territory, making it harder to escape.
Once those fleeing war arrive in peshmerga-controlled areas, they are first vetted. The peshmerga troops have been keeping new arrivals in two fenced-off soccer courts on the outer edge of Makhmour while they carry out security screening, including checking mobile phones for messages.
Lt. Col Mahdi Younis, a peshmerga officer, said his forces need to ensure there are no IS sympathizers among the displaced civilians. He said that once the checks have been carried out, the new arrivals are moved to a nearby camp. This camp, located in an abandoned youth and sports center, is now home to 2,000 people.
The U.N. estimates that there are 3.3 million internally displaced people across Iraq. The country has witnessed a surge in violence as government forces battle to contain the Islamic State group, which swept across Iraq in 2014 and still holds large swaths of territory in the north and west of the country.
The recent arrivals to Makhmour described a harrowing nighttime journey, after families made use of some bad weather and a lull in fighting to escape. Many of them left all their belongings behind or threw them away by the roadside when they could no longer carry them. A few people were separated from their relatives on the way, and appeared in shock at the suddenness of their flight.
Many were clearly relieved to have left IS territory behind. Men who had just arrived were lighting their first cigarettes with visible impatience. Dakhr Abu Jasim, a 28-year-old who had been in Makhmour for several days, said the first thing he did after arriving here was to get a shave. Under IS's strict interpretation of Islam, smoking is not allowed and men must let their beards grow.
By last Thursday, the rain had stopped and a strong sun was beating down on the families crowded in the soccer courts. Except for a few cabins, there was no cover.
"We struggled a lot. We are very tired. This kid was barely walking yesterday. I was pushing him to walk. And this morning he couldn't walk anymore," said Isra Badran, a 22-year-old mother of three, pointing toward her five-year-son, Ali. He stood close to her, looking dazed.
"We moved at night. It was muddy and raining and there were airplanes in the sky. And that's the time when they (IS) are hiding. We took the opportunity and got out of there. We walked the whole night. We arrived here at 7:30 in the morning," said Uday Saddam Ahmed, a 16-year-old boy, talking to The Associated Press through the chain-link fence on the soccer court. He said that the peshmerga forces had treated him well, giving him food and water.
The families may feel safe at last, but their future is uncertain. It is not clear where they will go once the local Kurdish authorities have carried out their security checks.
Non-resident Arabs have been barred from entering the Iraqi Kurdish region over security concerns, and so many of the new arrivals may find themselves unable to leave U.N. camps or even the soccer courts.
Hassan Sabawi, a member of Nineveh's provincial council, said on Monday that the Kurdish regional government was planning to build a new, larger camp outside the nearby town of Dibaga.
Chloe Coves, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Iraq, says her organization would only support the building of a new camp if they received assurances from Kurdish authorities that it would not be used as a detention center. She said it would be better for displaced families to be moved to the town of Makhmour, where hundreds of houses are standing empty.
In a twist of fate, many of the Arab residents of Makhmour fled when the front line passed through the city in 2014, and have not been allowed to return since. They, too, have been displaced by war.