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Fleeing one of the last ISIS strongholds
02:44 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Families are fleeing homes near the ISIS-controlled town of Hawija

They are seeking sanctuary behind the Kurdish front lines ahead of an expected battle

Daqouq, Iraq CNN  — 

Ten-year-old Amal scrambled to the top of the raised bank, a battered black purse in her left hand.

She paused for a moment, looked around, then stepped gingerly down the other side, over a tangle of barbed wire. Three younger girls, Amal’s cousins, giggled nervously as they watched her go.

Amal –“Hope” in Arabic – was one of a group of about 50 people who fled to Daqouq, this Kurdish town on the plains south of Kirkuk, from their homes around the ISIS-controlled town of Hawija, 60 kilometers (37 miles) away.

They are among people fleeing from the villages around Hawija, often without a specific destination in mind.

Amal (second from left) and her cousins approach the berm at the edge of Kurdish territory. In the background, others wait to be searched and called forward by Peshmerga.

At noon we had spotted Amal and the others walking through the dry grass along the Kurdish front lines. Before they approached the raised bank, or berm, Peshmerga – Kurdish soldiers – frisked them one by one, and went through their bags at an outpost outside the town of Daqouq.

“We have to take all these measures, searches and interrogations,” explained Peshmerga commander. Araz Abdal Rahman, “because there might be someone among them with a bomb.”

‘They scare me’

Abdal Rahman was the first person to greet Amal after she crossed the berm.

He kissed her on the right cheek, made a quick search through her purse, then motioned for her to join the others by the side of the road, where aid workers handed out chicken sandwiches, biscuits and bottles of water.

Families fleeing from their homes near the ISIS-controlled town of Hawija wait to be trucked away from the front line.

The journey to get here, Amal told me, was tiring. All the while she was terrified she and her family would be caught by Daesh, a derogatory term for ISIS. “They scare me,” she said.

Her father, Bashir, said they had left their farmhouse at sunset the day before, and had walked through the night. “We went single file, following animal tracks because most other trails are booby-trapped,” he said.

Bashir, a farmer, had paid a smuggler $300 per person to lead the way.

Journey marked by fear

A steady stream of people from Hawija and the area around it shows up here every day.

The number coming has increased as Iraqi forces prepare to launch an offensive on Hawija, the last major pocket of ISIS-controlled territory to be taken before the operation to drive ISIS out of Mosul.

The Kurdish front line near Daqouq, Iraq. Every day dozens of people fleeing ISIS-controlled territory brave bombs and booby-traps to get here. In the last month, nine have been killed trying to reach Daqouq.

Kurdish soldiers told us that in the past month, nine people fleeing Hawija had been killed by homemade bombs planted by ISIS.

“Hundreds, thousands of people want to escape, but Daesh is waiting to catch people trying to leave,” Mahmoud, a father of five, told me.

Twice he had tried to escape and was caught by ISIS militants. “This time,” he said, “I succeeded.” He cradled his exhausted daughter in his lap as he spoke. His black shoes were in tatters.

But it was touch and go. During the night he and his wife and small children had huddled for hours in the water of an irrigation canal, fearing militants were nearby.

When they thought the coast was clear, they heard rustling in the grass. “I thought they were about to catch us,” said Mahmoud, “but it was just a wild boar.”

UN warns of ‘tsunami’ of people fleeing

What we saw here outside the town of Daqouq was just a trickle.

A United Nations official in Baghdad told me last week they expect a “tsunami” of people to flee Mosul when the operation to take it begins.

ISIS seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014. Perhaps a million people remain there, but when the battle starts – and it’s not clear when that will be – hundreds of thousands are expected to flee.

Not surprisingly, aid agencies are issuing dire warnings they don’t have the manpower or resources to deal with what is coming.

Displaced people arrive in Daqouq. The children are exhausted from the journey; the parents wary of what comes next.

Those we spoke with here were simple people, farmers, truck drivers and factory workers. They didn’t have the resources to run away when ISIS came two years ago. Most came from poor, dusty villages in the plains around Hawija.

Bashir, Amal’s father, had just one run-in with the militants. “They arrested me for a pack of cigarettes, fined me 100,000 dinars (about $85) and gave me 10 lashes.”

Latif, a truck driver with bloodshot eyes and a wind-burned face, shook his head wearily when I asked about life under ISIS. “If you do something small, they just jail and beat you. Anything serious, and it’s off with your head.”

And what is considered serious? I asked.

“If you have a mobile phone, and on it you have the number of Peshmerga or someone from the Hashd,” he said, referring to the Hashd Al-Shaabi, the paramilitary units expected to lead the Hawija offensive.

Grim life under ISIS rule

The picture that emerges of ISIS rule from these people is grim.

Samira, Latif’s wife, complained that her three children – two teenage boys and a 10-year old girl – hadn’t been to school in two years. Amal’s mother said she had kept her children indoors as much as possible to avoid any problems with the militants.

Mahmoud said food prices have skyrocketed. A kilo of sugar costs 50,000 dinars (about $40), a kilo of tea 80,000 dinars (about $64). “Soap hasn’t touched our heads in months,” he said.

Peshmerga Commander Araz Abdal Rahman gives water to a child at Daqouq.

One by one, an intelligence officer recorded each person’s name and examined documents. Many of the smaller children had no identification cards because they were born under ISIS rule.

Once the questioning was complete, soldiers herded the group into the back of a military truck, which would take them to the Kurdish intelligence headquarters in Kirkuk for a more thorough interrogation.

An officer explained to us that they have a database of 40,000 names of ISIS militants and sympathizers, and that in recent months they had detained 38 ISIS members, including an “amir,” or leader.

The families huddled in the truck as it drove away. A little blond haired girl cried, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of exhaustion and confusion.

Amal, wearing a red and pink hair clip, sat quietly between her cousins, taking it all in. On her face was no fear, only curiosity, and a hint of relief.