KHIDHIR, IRAQ - "Of course we are afraid there are bombs planted in our homes," said Badirkhan Moussa, who fled his home on foot two years ago when Islamic State militants stormed his village. "But we won't be happy again until we go home, and go inside."
In a dirt parking lot between a fallen bridge blown up by IS a year ago and a peshmerga military checkpoint, Moussa and his neighbors waited for two hours to get permission to travel into the war zone surrounding Mosul to visit their homes after IS fighters were driven out in recent days.
As families drove in with their permission slips, the Iraqi and peshmerga forces both announced gains in the battle with IS. The army said it was advancing in Bakhdida, about 20 kilometers from Mosul, and Qayyara, nearly 75 kilometers to the south. Peshmerga forces tweeted that they were beginning a "major advance from three fronts."
But IS militants were continuing to wreak havoc in Iraq, as fighting in Kirkuk continued for a second day and nearly 1,000 people reportedly were treated for inhaling toxic fumes near Mosul. The U.S. military said IS fighters set a sulfur plant on fire as they fled.
Stream of visitors
With several villages cleared of IS fighters, a steady stream of people were visiting their homes and streets despite the fear — and expectation — that IS left explosive booby traps in their wake.
"Of course we are nervous," said Ali Mohammad, an off-duty soldier with the Iraqi army. "But we are all going at our own risk." Hours before, mortar fire had hit a nearby formerly IS-controlled village.
The peshmerga army is granting permission to travel into military zones, but not guaranteeing security to residents visiting villages directly behind their fighting line. Mohammad said he was going to his home, but that they would all return before nightfall, taking with them anything that was left.
But a few hours later, Mohammad said there was nothing to take. All the valuables were gone and many homes had been bombed out.
"There were three or four blankets and a water container left in my house," he said. "The whole village is like this."
Despite the destruction, added neighbor Abbass, a day laborer, it was a relief to finally see their homes. "It's been 2½ years," he said. "We miss our village."
The relative calm in the area surrounding the front lines of the battle toward Mosul may be short lived, said Azat Umar Moloud, the manager of Hajj Idrees Seudin Surchi, a local aid organization. And the calm is merely relative, as an explosion interrupted him.
At an unoccupied camp about 30 kilometers outside Mosul, Moloud said the thousands of already dusty tents set up were expected to fill quickly as military forces moved toward the city.
"This camp will not be enough for the refugees," he said. "But we are trying our best to help them."
Roughly a million people are expected to flee their homes if or when Iraqi and peshmerga forces fight their way into Mosul. Aid organizations were scrambling to erect 12,000 tents in the desert surrounding the war zone.
In a village near one of the camps, a few soldiers occupied a mosque, using it as a station to fix mechanical parts for peshmerga vehicles. Soldiers warned that other homes in the village, abandoned when IS took over the area, were still not safe to enter despite having been under security forces' control since last year.
"A homeowner came by," one soldier joked, sadly, "and asked if they could charge us rent."