BARTELLA, IRAQ —
Soldiers say the Iraqi army is closing in on Mosul, fighting less than a kilometer from the city limits as it battles Islamic State militants in Iraq.
But in cities and villages outside the front lines, some locals say they fear as long as militants control the provincial capital nowhere in the area is safe.
"We can't go back until Mosul is freed," said Bashir Salam Shama, who came back to his city to find his house destroyed on Wednesday. "We are Christians and it will not be safe."
Islamic State militants target all minorities, government workers, security forces and other groups. Families fleeing the group recently said they are threatening to kill anyone who tries to escape.
Soldiers say civilians are trapped in the battle zones, and they are fighting IS militants on the streets. The next phase of the struggle for Mosul is coming soon, it is expected to be long and dangerous for everyone involved, they said.
"IS techniques are suicide bombs and explosive cars," explained Lt. Col. Atheer Jasim of the Iraqi army in Bartella. "They are dangerous for everyone, but we want to liberate Mosul, and our soldiers are well trained."
As towns and villages surrounding Mosul are recaptured, a world of destruction is revealed. Shops and homes are in rubble, windows are shattered, and shell casings are scattered on the streets.
There is no running water or electricity in Bartella, but residents trickle in to see what has become of their homes.
"It has been two years since we have seen our homes and our city, and we are tired of being refugees," said Hasina Slyo Pitros, another resident who returned Wednesday to find her home devastated. "It is not just our house that was destroyed, it is the whole city."
Outside the battle zones, vehicles with white flags are appearing at refugee camps, carrying fleeing families. The International Organization for Migration says more than 20,000 people have been displaced since the offensive began more than two weeks ago, and as many as a million more are expected.
But many displaced families say if their suffering is necessary to destroy IS, they have no choice but to pay the price.
"There will be a lot of victims because there are a lot of civilians in there," said Ahmed, an 18-year-old student living at the Debaga camp in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. "But the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga have the experience. They will do it."