QAYYARAH, IRAQ - Fleeing fighting, abandoning their villages, and returning to formerly IS controlled areas, Iraqis are on the move.
Aid workers are setting up camps for the one million people who may be displaced by the battle for Mosul, while many recaptured villages and towns remain virtually empty, littered with bombs and blackened by burning oil wells.
In Qayyarah, smoke from burning oil wells billows over the town, while fumes from a burning sulfur plant poison the air. Islamic State militants fleeing Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces set them alight.
Soldiers say this fight is bigger than the immediate goal of recapturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from Islamic State.
“We are not just defending our own people, we are defending the world,” says Capt. Boko Kader, a peshmerga soldier. “If we do not fight them, they will just get stronger and attack more places.”
In Photos: Fleeing Islamic State
Further north, at a camp about 30 kilometers from Mosul in Khidhir province, dust settles on new tents as aid workers prepare for what they expect could be a million new refugees.
“It will be a bigger disaster if we do not get more help because winter is coming,” explains Rizgar Barzani, who manages displaced persons camps for the Barzani Charity Foundation. We need to find a way to keep the people warm, not just provide food and pillows.”
In a nearby village called Hassan Sham, many houses still stand, but bombs and booby traps make it too dangerous for people to come home.
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The International Organization for Migration says already more than 10,000 people have been displaced since the operation to retake Mosul began earlier this month.
And analysts say the fight for Mosul may be long and dangerous. And while many Iraqis in the region are displaced, authorities believe a million and a half people in Mosul are still trapped in their homes.
“I hope they will free Mosul and other places as soon as possible so people can go home,” says Ahmed, an 18-year-old living at the Debaga camp, where tens of thousands of people are waiting, hopefully, to go home. “There are too many refugees,” he adds.