Villagers forced to leave loved ones behind while escaping Islamic State snipers

A view of displaced people who are fleeing from clashes in al-Shura, south of Mosul, during an operation to attack Islamic State militants south of Mosul, October 29, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

NEAR BASHIQA, Iraq – After two years of ruthless Islamic State rule, Ahmed finally decided to make a run for it, past some of the group’s snipers in his village in northern Iraq.

He is relieved that the bullets they fired at him, and at anyone else attempting to flee, missed. But life is still fraught with risks and hardship.

READ MORE: Islamic State using human shields in Mosul: UN

Ahmed had to leave his elderly parents behind when he sought refuge in a small makeshift base for Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who are vulnerable to attacks by suicide bombers in vehicles.

“After Islamic State took over our village there were no jobs. My father ran out of money. He and my mother stayed behind to watch over the car,” said Ahmed. “We can’t afford to buy a new one.”

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Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters have cleared dozens of villages as they press towards the city of Mosul for an offensive against the Islamic State’s last main stronghold in the country.

The momentum has encouraged Iraqis like Ahmed to take a risk, despite warnings from the world’s most feared and violent Islamist militant group that anyone who attempts to flee their self-proclaimed caliphate will be shot dead.

They are slowly emerging from villages and towns with accounts of Islamic State’s ferocity in imposing their ultra-hardline interpretation of Islam.

Sitting beside a plastic plate and picking at some rice and chick peas, Ahmed spoke slowly, exhausted and wondering what would become of relatives who had to stay behind.

“When Daesh arrived two years ago we all thought they would be here for a couple of weeks because the Iraqi army would remove them,” said Ahmed, who asked that only his first name be used to avoid reprisals against his loved ones.

Daesh is an Arabic acronym used by opponents of Islamic State to describe the group.

The Iraqi army collapsed in the face of a lighting Islamic State sweep through northern Iraq in 2014.

The group seized Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city — and then swallowed up villages like Abu Jarbouh, where Ahmed’s parents still live in fear of militants who control every aspect of life, from beard sizes to a ban on cigarettes and alcohol.

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READ MORE: Iraqi forces uncover ISIS bomb factory, network of tunnels near Mosul

The whole family were virtually hostages in their own home for two years, afraid that even walking down the street in their own neighborhood could invite the wrath of the jihadists.

“We left the home once a month to go to Mosul to get some food and other supplies,” said Ahmed, who gave up his education after he heard what the group was doing in schools.

“Word got back to me that they were actually teaching young men how to behead people and shoot them.”

Moments after he spoke an air strike was launched against Islamic State targets in a village held by the group about 1.5 km (one mile) away. A thick cloud of smoke rose up.

Kurdish fighters said that two children who ran away from that area towards the base were shot dead by the Sunni militants this week.

Jihadists also tried to carry out suicide bombings against the base and clashes often erupt at night. Kurdish fighters say Islamic State snipers are positioned in buildings across fields in the distance.

The Kurds man positions beneath dirt berms at the base, located between two villages held by Islamic State.

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READ MORE: Iraqi forces engage in fierce clashes with ISIS near Mosul

Kurdish fighters occasionally test their machine guns, rattling refugees who have blank stares, sitting on dirt and gravel wondering whether they will ever be able to return home.

The United Nations has warned that Islamic State could try to take thousands of people as hostages and human shields during the Mosul offensive.

As a military truck that will transport the displaced to a camp arrived, Ahmed and a few relatives, along with young children, slowly climbed on it.

“I never thought we would escape Daesh,” said Ahmed, holding a worn plastic bag with his meagre belongings. “God has showed us mercy.”

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