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Watch parts one and two of Christof Putzel’s report from Northern Iraq
ERBIL, Iraq – Many of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who used to live in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, are filling up refugee camps in the Kurdish region that – like the fighting itself – is divided along ethnic and religious lines.
The Iraqi government has begun a campaign of airstrikes against rebel targets inside Mosul, which was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant Sunni rebel group a little over two weeks ago. Many of the refugees in one camp, where Sunnis are seeking refuge, said it was the bombings that pushed them to flee.
One woman, who asked to remain anonymous like all the refugees interviewed for this report, told America Tonight that the home she shared with her husband was destroyed a couple days ago by drones.
“We didn’t even bring clothes with us. Our house burned and collapsed from within,” she said. “I have nobody to support me. I am living just by God’s mercy. The army and ISIL are fighting amongst themselves, and we are caught in the middle.”
At the camp, there are small beds on the ground as temperatures reach around 110 to 115 degrees.
“I don’t even have any money to go and rent a house with my husband,” the woman added. “We would be better off dead. There is nothing for us. Where are we supposed to go?”
A kid in one tent showed us everything he brought with him: an undershirt and a pair of shoes.
Another family had just arrived from Mosul with six people piled in the backseat of their car.
“Yesterday, there were airstrikes at sunset,” the father of the family said about the conditions in Mosul. “And this morning, there was an airstrike on a village.”
An hour away at another camp – this one still under construction – mostly Shiite refugees are still arriving from Mosul. Many of the men in this camp are Iraqi army and police officers, proudly showing us their various IDs and badges. And they said it was ISIL – and not the bombings – that they were running from.
“It was horrible,” said a former police officer outside his tent. “We’ve seen dead bodies before, but never like this. There were bodies in the street with their legs cut off. You couldn’t save them.”
Much has been made of how easily ISIL has been able to take territory in Iraq, and the Iraqi Army and police have been criticized for the way they seemed to walk away from the fight. But the police officers here insisted that what happened in Mosul is more complicated than that.
“We fought for five days and were able to hold them back,” the former police officer said outside his tent. “On the sixth day at 9 p.m., the setback happened. They used a huge bomb to break through police lines and then, our headquarters fell. And then, the whole operation was over.”
A second officer added from inside his tent: “We couldn’t resist them. They had sophisticated weapons and lots of fighters.”
And when Iraqi security forces dropped their weapons, the officer said the police had no morale left, or ammunition to fight back.
“We were dead either way,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we flee?”
The second officer said he fled Mosul with his family while he was still in military uniform. After changing into civilian clothes, he took his family to one of the refugee camps.
“My money is gone. My wife’s gold is gone,” the officer said. “I only brought my family. That’s it.”
He said that if ISIL had found him with his police ID, they would have beheaded him and his entire family.
These men have good reason to fear for their lives. ISIL has posted various videos online that appear to show them chasing down people trying to flee the city – hitting their cars with a barrage of gunfire until they crash on the side of the road – and conducting mass executions of Iraqi soldiers.
Inside his tent, his wife was sitting alone, staring into space. Still in shock, she said the streets were full of ISIL forces, many of whom have long hair and long beards.
As we were leaving the Shiite camp, we got word that ISIL had seized the town of Qaraqosh, a historic Christian town outside Mosul. Along the highway, car after car was packed with people and the few belongings they managed to gather in panic. Their destination: a church youth center in Erbil, the Kurdish capital.
When we arrived, more than 1,000 people had already flooded into the crowded building. Father Ramon, one of the priests, said he never imagined this many people would come.
“People are still coming, arriving in numbers,” he said.
Many fled based on rumors of what ISIL had done in Mosul. “I understand that ISIL is Al-Qaeda. And we don’t want to see this in Iraq,” one man said. “We hear they did bad things in Mosul. We heard about their practices. For example, the way they treat women. They don’t belong here.”
In the youth center, children were everywhere, sleeping, running around or weeping.
“It’s difficult for us,” said one woman inside the church youth center. “What are we and these kids guilty of? What did we do? Why is this the life of Iraqis?”
And there is little stomach here for more sectarian bloodshed.
“We’re praying to the Virgin Mary that peace will come to Iraq, not only for us but to all of Iraq – for Muslims and Christians,” the woman said. “That is all we ask for.”