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ISIS May Be Gone, But Life Has Yet To Return To Normal In Northern Iraq

Feb 15, 2015
Originally published on February 15, 2015 12:49 pm

The graffiti in Snuny — an Iraqi city at the base of Mount Sinjar that Kurdish peshmerga fighters recently regained control of — provides a kind of shorthand for its recent history.

There's black graffiti on some buildings, proclaiming "This is the Islamic State." It's been scribbled out.

Over it, there's green or red graffiti, which proclaims "This is now the property of the Kurdish peshmerga."

Over the summer, the world focused on Mount Sinjar, a remote mountain in northern Iraq where thousands of people were under assault by the group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Many starving, terrified people were evacuated from that mountain.
The surrounding area fell to ISIS, including Snuny.

We arrive at the mayor's office, where about a half-dozen men in fatigues with guns greet us and escort us in.

Mayor Nayef Sado Kasim is the first man we've seen all day who is not wearing camouflage. He has a sharp gray suit and tie, buzz-cut silver hair, and a thick black moustache.

He's obviously trying to project an air of normalcy and control in a city that is far from normal.

The center of this town is safe, he says. But it's surrounded on three sides by ISIS — and sometimes they attack.

Before the war, he says, Snuny had a population of nearly 150,000 — a mix of Kurdish Muslims and Yazidis, who belong to a religious ethnic minority in this region.

Today, he estimates that about 10,000 people have come back. Many single men have returned, but few families, the mayor says.

He gives us an armed escort to go see for ourselves, and we begin to drive. There are some obvious signs that life is coming back to this city. People are selling fruits and vegetables at markets. We see a man tending his olive trees, and shepherds herding their flocks of sheep.

We meet a man named Suleman Fanno, who runs eight local community centers in the surrounding villages.

He says there's no electricity, no water, no street cleaning and no trash collection. He says they will have a long way to go before people can return to their normal lives.

In some newly liberated Kurdish cities, there have been reports of revenge killings — villagers taking out their anger on their neighbors who supported ISIS.

In Snuny, locals tell us there were few ISIS sympathizers in the first place, and most of them fled with retreating forces.

Finally our escort leads us to a mud brick house where a woman stands with her three young children. A lamb and a few chickens and pigeons roam the yard.

Wedat Kasim tells us that her family stayed on Mount Sinjar through the long siege, from early August until this city was freed in late December.

"There was nothing to eat," she says. "There was no water to drink. No soap. We had maybe a little rice or cracked wheat each day."

Her children are 3, 5, and 6. They would eat once a day. Instead of bathing, she would try to wipe down their faces with a little water.

They didn't understand what was happening, she says. They would just cry and ask me to give them food. They would say, "It's cold. We're hungry."

Then she turns from my interpreter to me and says in Kurdish, I have a question for you.

As difficult as our lives are here, she says, thousands of women are still being held by ISIS. Their lives are worse. What about them?

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. Over the summer, the world focused on a remote mountain in northern Iraq where thousands of people, mostly Kurds and minority Yazidis, fled to escape the murderous advance of the group that calls itself the Islamic State or ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...Saying that Islamic militants sieging that mountain in Sinjar.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Are on the top of a mountain called Mount Sinjar.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar.

LAKSHMANAN: Starving, terrified people were evacuated from that mountain as the surrounding area fell to ISIS. Now Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga have expelled ISIS from some of the nearby towns. NPR's Ari Shapiro went to see what life there is like today.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: We're entering the city of Snuny at the base of Mount Sinjar. This was recently taken back by the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. And on the buildings you can see there is black graffiti that says this is the Islamic State. And it has been scribbled out. And then there's graffiti in either green or red over it that says this is now the property of the Kurdish Peshmerga.

We've arrived at the mayor's office where about a half dozen men in fatigues with guns are greeting us to escort us in. Mayor Nayef Sado Kasim is the first man we've seen all day who is not wearing camouflage. He has a sharp gray suit and tie, buzz cut silver hair and a thick black mustache. He's obviously trying to project an air of normalcy and control in a city that is far from normal.

MAYOR NAYEF SADO KASIM: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: He says "the center of this town is safe, but we are surrounded on three sides by ISIS. And sometimes they attack."

SHAPIRO: How much of the population has returned to Snuny?

KASIM: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: He says "many single men have come back, but few families have returned. Before the war," he says, "Snuny had almost 150,000 people - a mix of Kurdish-Muslims and Yazidis, who belong to a religious ethnic minority in this region." Today he estimates that about 10,000 people have come back. He gives us an armed escort to go see for ourselves, and we begin to drive.

SHAPIRO: There's obviously life coming back to this city. There are markets where people are selling fruits and vegetables. We saw a man tending his olive trees. There are shepherds herding their flocks of sheep. We meet a man named Suleman Fanno, who runs eight local community centers in the surrounding villages.

SULEMAN FANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: He says "when you talk about services, there's no electricity here, no water, no street cleaning or trash collection. We still have a long way to go before people can return to their normal lives." In some newly liberated Kurdish cities there have been reports of revenge killings - villagers taking out their anger on their neighbors who supported ISIS. Here in Snuny, locals tell us there were few ISIS sympathizers in the first place and most of them fled with retreating forces.

Finally, our escort leads us to a mud brick house where a woman stands with her three young children. A lamb and a few chickens and pigeons roam the yard. Wedat Kasim tells us that her family stayed on Mount Sinjar through the long siege from early August until this city was freed in late December.

KASIM: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "There was nothing to eat," she says. "There was no water to drink, no soap. We had maybe a little rice or cracked wheat each day." Her children are 3, 5 and 6. They would eat once a day. Instead of bathing, she would try to wipe down their faces with a little water.

KASIM: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "They didn't understand what was happening," she says. "They would just cry and ask me to give them food. They would say it's cold, we're hungry." Then she turns from my interpreter to me, and says, in Kurdish, "I have a question for you. As difficult as our lives are," she says, "thousands of women are still being held by ISIS, and their lives are worse. What about them?" Ari Shapiro, NPR News, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.