it is the old moscovite idea: ‘what i can not have, my enemy shall never enjoy. and burn the city down.’ the islamic state gave the old saga a twist. they are not burning the cities they leave, they are blowing them up instead.
zumar, a city of 12.000, retaken by the kurdish peshmerga forces only three days ago, and an area of almost 60 villages that is still fought over across the local riverbed, is a lonely shadow of itself. while solidly held and defended by the peshmerga now, the black ghost of isis is still hanging between the empty streets. no local dares to return yet. and for a good reason: as isis retreated, they turned the entire city into a single death trap. ied’s – improvised explosive devices – were deposited everywhere. according to local intel, ied’s have been found in door bells, beneath pots and pans, in shops and stores, along the streets and in an empty field. some families, who were eager to return, came home to their own graveyard, for, when they opened the door, the entire building blew itself and everyone around into pieces. in zumar, ied’s are literally anywhere and everywhere.
the expression ‘walking on eggshells’ has never had more meaning to me than today, when i was following the local security troops through the abandoned streets of zumar, making sure that i would step in their steps along the way. here and there the isis flag was already ripped off the walls or overpainted with bright kurdish colors. ‘we are back’, the colors read. ‘finally!’
the town of zumar has been taken by the islamic state on the second of august and has not been able to be retaken ever since. and how could it? looking at the town and everywhere left and right to it, there is only long empty plains stretching in all directions. it is hard to straight forward attack such a position when the waiting enemy can see you coming miles down the road. only a sudden and precise hit in their heart could stir up the crowds and get them moving, to give the peshmerga a chance to march in. three days ago, this quick stab in the heart happened: several airstrikes of the foreign forces, united states and france, leveled the hiding space and head quarters of the islamic state in zumar – a three story building and former center of the kurdish democratic party (pdk), which today is nothing but a pile of bricks and steel wires. as i step over the pile, i am told that they expect at least ten isis members still being buried beneath it. next to the pile of the former house and current graveyard is a big hole of about three meter depth. it was another prepared goodbye present from the departing isis that ended up bidding themselves a farewell as the bomb exploded in a singing choir of death as the airstrike hit the building. unisono. grande finale. and goodbye. their sneaky trick backfired.
but, speaking of the sneaky tricks of ‘the islamic state’, another story pops into my mind: on the road to zumar, my entourage and i ran into a disrupting picture. an entire town to the left side of the road was leveled. house by house, brick by brick. not a single place was still standing. except for one. tall and green. the mosque. we all wondered. but while my company suggested us-airstrikes leveling the entire town, which was likely a big isis domaine, while sparing the mosque in order to avoid cultural criticism, i had a different idea. the mosque seemed too ‘untouched’, even for an airstrike with computer game – precision. so my theory was different. isis leveled the town and spared the mosque. the us had nothing to do with it.
later we learned that both of us were right. it was indeed the islamic state that had leveled the town with tnt and bulldozers. but the reason they actually spared the mosque is not just religious but also involves the americans. it turns out, the americans indeed can not afford to hit islamic heritage. that has less to do with their inherent values of culture, but more to do with the local support and international image they need to uphold, but, capitalizing on the situation, the islamic state tends to hold its meetings and head quarters in mosques. thereby they avoid bombing as long as possible and even get the pleasure to demolish the area around them themselves. after all, who would attack one lonely mosque in an already destroyed town? as i said – sneaky.
and, to tell one last story of the journey to zumar today, there was a moment that once again highlighted the potential, and, at least on the kurdish part, also expected, support for the islamic state by sunni arab tribes.
driving down the road we noticed how quiet and peaceful the area was around us. there was not much noise, soft, green hills spread to the left and the right, and here and there there was a cute small town on the side of the road. suddenly a car coming up from behind us, honked at us, slowed down a little to overtake us in his speed and then hit the gas pedal again. the truth is, weird or even rude drivers in iraq are nothing to make a traveler wonder. but this time seemed to be different. our translator started shifting in his seat. ‘faster, come on, faster, go, go, go’ he urged the driver. and only as he did as he was told and floored the pedal to catch up to the other car, the translator on the passenger seat turned around to the confused foreigners and explained: ‘they just warned us, it is arab towns we are passing.’
what might sound like a racist statement, in an area where potentially every arab sunni could be an isis undercover or a sleeper cell, is a cautious and very welcomed warning. in the security headquarters we got exactly this information confirmed: among the dominant two arab tribes in the area, one is outright supporting the islamic state and targeting kurdish vehicles and soldiers, while the other tribe is neutral and hence fought for in a battle for sympathies – between the peshmerga on the one and the islamic state on the other side of the riverbed.
in conclusion it is therefore easy to say, the battle of zumar is not yet over. it continues for the surrounding villages, reaching all the way up to sinjar, for the sympathies of non-kurdish people within peshmerga commanded areas, and for the safety and security of the locals returning to zumar in the battle against the ied’s – also known as ‘isis’s evil dregs’.