KHAZIR CAMP, KURDISH IRAQ - As Iraqi families speed away from the frontlines of the battle against Islamic State in trucks, the thousands of tents in the desert countryside surrounding Mosul are slowly being occupied by fleeing villagers.
Some say the militant group appears to be losing strength, leaving checkpoints unmanned and losing track of escapees.
About 40 people rode into this camp on the backs of two flatbed trucks late Friday. Early that morning, they had fled bomb-laden villages guarded by Islamic State militants. As guards open the gates to the camp, family members in the dirt parking area weep and kiss their relatives through the truck’s grated sides.
“We were afraid to run,” says 26-year-old Youseff, a former construction worker traveling with his wife and toddler. “But we had no choice. IS fired on us as we escaped the village.”
Women and children gather by one section of the fence, while men lean their backs on another part. The men all have IS style-beards and shortened trousers, as is law under the militants. Many shave soon after arriving, says Islam, a Peshmerga soldier in the camp. “They are ordinary people, and it bothers them to look like IS,” he explains.
Some men also are staying in IS territory, he says, despite fearing the group and the ongoing battles as Iraqi and Peshmerga soldiers fight towards Mosul, the militants' largest stronghold in Iraq and home to 1.5 million people.
“Members of IS stay,” he says, “But others stay to protect their homes, or confuse the militants into thinking theirs is not a family that ran away.” In many places, IS says it will kill any relatives remaining if residents flee.
By the fence, Youseff says ultimately it wasn’t just harsh punishments, draconian rules or even fear of battle that forced them to flee after more than two years. With no jobs and no access to the outside word, his family was broke.
And the militant group appears to be losing its grip on the village, he adds. Like many people here, he decided it was time to run.
“Before, they were very strong, but now they seem weaker,” he explains. “So we took a chance.”
How IS took over
“For the first few months they were kind with us,” says Aziz Yassen, a 60-year-old sheepherder that fled his village less than a week ago. “We didn’t think to run.”
Government services had always been lacking in his isolated village, and IS promised things would get better. When they first came into town with bullhorns announcing their plan to take over and run things in an Islamic way, it seemed like on okay idea.
“At the beginning they only took over properties that were already unoccupied,” he explains.
Abbas, a 20 year old student, who escaped his village three days before, says the first incident of violence was when Islamic State soldiers killed the sheep of Shi'ite farmers. But even then it was for food.
But one by one new rules were added, making the group seem increasingly oppressive. First came the beards and the shorter trousers. Then mobile phones and satellites were banned. Cigarette smoking was punished by whipping. Thieves’ hands were chopped off.
Then came the killings, says Abbas. But by then, IS was also too strong to escape.
And life inside Mosul, is rapidly getting worse, adds another 25-year-old student who doesn’t want to be named because he fears for his friends in the city.
“There is no food or water,” according to his friends, he says. “Every day they are killing people. The militants are scared.”