QAYYARAH, IRAQ —
"We can't even wash our hands because there is just barely enough water to drink," says Intisar, leaning on her tin door frame in the city of Qayyarah, Iraq. She is surrounded by her three daughters — their clothes, faces and hands all blackened with oil residue.
Overhead loom massive plumes of black smoke from burning oil fields. Five days ago, Islamic State fighters were launching attacks, including re-igniting the oil fields, about 300 meters from her front door. A month ago, they controlled Qayyarah.
Just north of the city, fumes from a sulfur plant set alight by IS fighters have killed at least two people in recent days, and sent about 1,000 to the hospital.
In recent days about 1,000 people have been hospitalized from inhaling fumes from another fire set by IS nearby, this one at a sulfur plant, in Qayyarah, Iraq, Oct. 24, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Intisar's daughter, Haibat, who looks about 10 years old, puts on a paper hospital mask. Officials have told people to wear the masks to protect them from the poisons. After a few minutes, Haibar removes the mask.
"The oil has been burning so long, people have gotten used to it," her mom says.
In Pictures: Destruction Left Behind by IS in Iraq
Here in Qayyarah, locals say most of the bombed-out buildings were crushed by coalition airstrikes. A makeshift memorial on the main street lists the names of those killed by IS.
"At first, IS fighters didn't care about the people; they only wanted to control the city," explains Obayda, who returned to Qayyarah after IS was pushed out a month ago. "They didn't even bother families of Iraqi Army soldiers."
Now Obayda works at a falafel shop on the city's main drag, where most of the businesses are closed and buildings have shattered windows and bullet holes. A Sunni Muslim, he also serves with one of the Shiite militias, a joint Sunni-Shiite operation.
Obayda left six months ago, returning only after IS had been driven from town. Life under IS in Qayyarah, Iraq, he says, was becoming more dangerous as Iraqi forces grew closer, Oct. 24, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
As months of IS rule dragged on, he says, militants in this area appeared to grow more nervous, slaughtering former police officers, soldiers and government workers. Obayda finally swam across the river six months ago because the bridge had been bombed, and escaped to a refugee camp in the Kurdistan region.
"They were treating people like dogs," he says. "We couldn't leave our homes. There was no work and no money."
Regardless of the destruction, the smattering of local people that remain or have returned appear to be thrilled with the Iraqi Army's presence in the area, cheering military vehicles as they pass.
Graffiti litters many buildings, expressing support for the army and anger at IS. Some reads, "Long live Iraq. Death to Daesh."
Homes and businesses across this former IS-territory have been bombed by coalition airstrikes in Qayyarah, Iraq, Oct. 24, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Protecting the people
Army officials say they are winning the war against IS, but protecting the people is their biggest challenge.
When Iraqi and Kurdish forces get to Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city and the largest IS stronghold in the country, IS is expected to use civilians' lives for protection, according to Major-General Najim al-Jibouri, the Iraqi Army's commander of the operation to take back Mosul.
"The big challenge is the people in the villages and the cities," he says, "ISIS uses them like shields."
Most of the homes in this area remain empty as Iraqi and Peshmerga forces recapture villages. Many homes and businesses are in rubble, bombed by coalition airstrikes against IS, in Qayyarah, Iraq, Oct. 24, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Inside Mosul, he adds, IS has told people to fear the oncoming forces, and locals are already terrified of airstrikes.
The militants have also laid booby traps and mines in the villages that have been recaptured, and built escape tunnels. And while a million people are expected to escape the city as soon as they can, the surrounding area is reportedly also laden with landmines.
"We must be very careful not to hurt the people," al-Jibouri says. "If the battle was just between us and ISIS, it would be very easy for us to defeat them."