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Sinjar in ruins

Birgit Svensson, Sinjar / groNovember 26, 2015

Wariness prevails after Kurdish Peshmerga forces recaptured the Yazidi town of Sinjar. The local population will only return after the situation has stabilized. DW's Birgit Svensson reports from Sinjar.

Irak Peschmerga in Sindschar
Image: Reuters/A. Jalal

Sinjar lies in ruins: collapsed buildings, carpets strewn around outdoors, furniture, clothing and toys dominate the town landscape. Not one building has been left undamaged in the Yazidi town in northern Iraq near the Syrian border. When the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, announced he would visit the town that had been recaptured from the terrorist group "Islamic State", a stage was quickly setup on which he was to praise the victory claimed by his Peshmerga troops and at the same time affirm Iraqi-Kurdistan's sovereignty over the area.

He said the autonomous government in Erbil would push ahead with the reconstruction of Sinjar so that the many refugees can return to their homes. Residents from the neighboring villages of Sinjar province came to cheer Barzani. They waved flags and lined the roads as the Kurdish leader entered the city, which is more than a six-hour drive away from Erbil. Sinjar itself is currently uninhabited, except for the soldiers of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga, who are now stationed here .

Irak Peschmerga in Sindschar
Ruins are about the only thing left in SinjarImage: Reuters/A. Jalal

Residents gather their belongings

On the way to Sinjar, we see oncoming SUVs and vans loaded with all sorts of household goods. Suspicions arise about looters being at work. After making some inquiries, however, it turns out that the majority of these vehicles belong to residents of Sinjar, who fled the IS fighters a year ago and are now returning to salvage what is left of their belongings. They transport their possessions to the places where they have found refuge. "We are not going back," says Marwan, who lives in a refugee camp in Dohuk and has just loaded mattresses and blankets onto a minibus. "First of all, everything is destroyed, and then, we are wary of the situation." Past experience has shown that even though the IS has withdrawn, it will attack again. That's what happened in Tikrit, the second largest city that jihadists captured in June 2014.

It took a long time before the military operation designed to recapture Sinjar kicked off. In December of last year, the Peshmerga drove IS out of the town that had once boasted a population of 50,000. But in a lightning operation in early August 2014, the IS reconquered large areas seized by the Kurds. Before that, Sinjar had been under Baghdad's control. After the Iraqi army surrendered to the jihadists, Kurdish Peshmerga forces advanced and took over Kirkuk, the Christian city of Qaraqosh and the Yazidi town of Sinjar. Subsequently, the Peshmerga were forced to capitulate to IS and left the Yazidis in Sinjar unprotected from the brutal "warriors of Allah."

Peshmerga officers have found three mass graves, each containing 100 to 200 corpses. Soldiers in the area are certain they will find more graves. Thousands of frightened Yazidis fled from IS and headed to the mountains where they stayed put until a passage to Iraq's Dohuk via Syria was created. The people had to walk for hours on this path to reach their destination. At that time, hopes were high when the first Kurdish military operation began; however, the Peshmerga only managed to recapture the area near the Sinjar Mountains and the city itself remained in the hands of IS.

Irak Sindschar Massengrab von IS getöteten Jesidinnen entdeckt
Perhmerga forces have discovered mass graves in SinjarImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Hamed

The Berlin Wall in Sinjar

In early summer, when Izaddin Sadus, who was based in Bashiqa, was detached to serve in Sinjar, a change of strategy was initiated. Brigadier General Sadus, who lived in Germany for many years, was preparing the recapturing of Sinjar. He is considered to be a team player and has managed to unite hitherto divergent groups in the "Alliance for Sinjar." Together with Turkish-Kurdish PKK guerrilla units that have already conducted operations in the mountains, the Peshmerga moved even closer to the town. But for months the front kept going back and forth.

"It was difficult," summarizes the 54-year-old Peshmerga officer. Sometimes the Kurds controlled 30 percent of Sinjar, sometimes 40. The concrete pillars in Sinjar that resemble the Berlin Wall illustrate where the front line used to be. That only changed after US forces intensified their air strikes in the weeks prior to the major attack. When the 7,500 Kurdish soldiers advanced on Sinjar, there was no one from IS in sight. Eyewitnesses say the jihadists fled to Mosul or Syria. The Kurds faced little resistance when they took the town.

Now it is time to maintain control and promote reconstruction so that people can muster the courage to return. Sadus is confident that this will happen soon. "By the beginning of next year, we will have definitely made a great deal of progress." The Brigadier General hopes that he will soon see his family again in Germany.