BASHIQA, Iraq (Reuters) - For the first time since Islamic State militants swept into Bashiqa two years ago forcing him to flee, 61-year-old Barakat has finally found work - on Sunday he will be coming back to help clear debris from the destruction wrought upon his home town.
He and others who have been living in exile gathered in the town on Wednesday, just over a week after Kurdish peshmerga forces drove the jihadists out.
Yazidi, Christian and Muslim former neighbors and old friends kissed and greeted each other. But it will be a long time before they can move back for good.
Homes have been flattened by bombardment, shopfronts and garages gutted, burnt and looted, and black patches from mortar explosions scorch the ground along the main road.
Bashiqa’s residents fled in different directions and at different speeds when the militants took over in 2014 after sweeping into Iraq from Syria.
“We left immediately,” said Bakarat, a Yazidi like most people from the town.
Islamic State has killed Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but has been particularly brutal with the Yazidi minority, whose beliefs combine elements of several religions. Thousands have been killed, captured and enslaved by the group in what the United Nations says is genocide.
Bakarat said some Muslim inhabitants had stayed on for a while, but Christians and Yazidis knew exactly what their fate would be if they did not get out straight away.
Those who were better off rented homes in other towns, and those without the means went to camps.
Bakarat and his family still live in the northern city of Duhok. With most of Bashiqa destroyed and no services or supplies, they expect it will be a long exile.
“We can begin to clean up this mess, but there’s no point returning to live until there’s electricity, water, and most importantly full security,” he said on his first trip back, declining to give his full name in a sign of lingering concern.
A U.S.-backed offensive to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, its last major stronghold in Iraq, has recaptured many towns and villages around the city since it began in earnest last month. The operation involves some 100,000 government troops, Kurdish security forces and Shi’ite militiamen.
Raghid Rashid, a local Yazidi policeman, returned this month and fought alongside the peshmerga to recapture the town, 7 miles northeast of Mosul.
“The fight to get Bashiqa back was tough. Daesh (Islamic State) used suicide bombers, tunnels, snipers. When we got here half the town was destroyed - including my home,” he said, adding that Yazidi shrines had also been desecrated.
On the steel shutters of several local businesses, the words “Sunni Muslim” have been scrawled by Islamic State militants, to distinguish the owners from locals of other faiths, or from those they consider apostates - both punishable by death under their rule.
Rashid, Bakarat and other men had come to listen to an address by Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
Nominally under the jurisdiction of Baghdad, the area is controlled by the KRG and Barzani spoke only Kurdish.
Speaking from a podium and flanked by Kurdish flags and banners proclaiming religious and ethnic coexistence, he said the peshmerga, the KRG’s armed forces, would not withdraw from areas they had seized from IS, and vowed to protect minorities living in areas under Kurdish control.
Kurdish fighters were recently accused by a human rights group of unlawfully destroying Arab homes in areas they captured from Islamic State between 2014 and May 2016, a charge the KRG denies.
It was not possible to stray too far from the main road to visit abandoned homes because the area was not yet fully cleared of IEDs and booby traps.
As Barzani spoke, two distant but large explosions were heard, apparently from the ongoing fight inside Mosul.
“Daesh is gone. But even if they came back I’d stay put, and I’d fight to the death if necessary,” Rashid said, dressed in combat fatigues and a black cap.
“We know their tactics now and we’re not scared anymore.”
(This story has been refiled to add dropped word in first paragraph)
Editing by Philippa Fletcher