KIRKUK, IRAQ - Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents.
Coordinated effort, retaking Amerli
Sunday, at approximately 1:30 in the morning, the U.S. began to bomb Islamic State (or ISIL) positions around Amerli, a town of about 15,000 Shi'ite Turkmen which has been besieged by the militants for more than two months.
By noon, the airstrikes and the following coordinated attack by local militia, Kurdish peshmerga, and the Iraqi military seemed to have been a success.
Residents recall their experiences
Around noon, a call came in from Ali Ibrahim, a Turkmen policeman fighting in Amerli. "Our group has taken the village. The road is open. God willing in a few minutes the road will be opened completely," he said.
Then he yelled over the gunfire, "They are in. They are in. We’re moving forward. Come. Come. Come. It is free. It’s free. We have taken Shakr."
Ali al-Bayati, who escaped from Amerli earlier in the month, bellowed words of encouragement down the phone.
Like so many others who had taken refuge with family members in Kirkuk, he hoped this meant he would be going home soon.
Mohammed Hamid and his mother were airlifted out Saturday. He described what life was like under constant attack from the Islamic State.
“Pregnant women couldn’t give birth because there were no doctors, so mothers were dying with their babies still inside them. Then we had to bury them. There was one group sitting in front of their door and a mortar round hit right in front, killing all of them,” stated Hamid.
After the Islamic State militants cut the electricity and water, residents of Amerli had to survive on salty well water that they cooled by leaving it in the shade. The nearly 50-degree Celsius heat left Mohammed’s body covered in blisters. “All of our bodies were blistered from the heat,” he said.
Amel Akram Khorshid was rescued by an Iraqi military helicopter three days ago. She kept her children alive by feeding them onions three times a day. “We were only eating bread and onions. I was roasting the onions directly on the fire and putting some salt on it. Then I gave it to my children to eat. We had nothing else to offer them,” she explained.
For Amel, Mohammed and the other displaced families, the Iraqi and Kurdish military success in Amerli is wonderful news. But although the siege by the Islamic State may have been broken, the humanitarian crisis persists, with thousands of people still unable to leave.
Reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.