Iraqis flee homes in fear of ISIS, leaving behind a ghost town

Residents of a northern Iraqi town apparently didn't even have time to lock their doors before they fled their homes as ISIS militants descended on the community, the CBC's Derek Stoffel found when he visited Talesskef.

Thousands from northern towns seek shelter in safer communities

Iraqi ghost town

8 years ago
Duration 1:32
The CBC's Margaret Evans finds an eerie silence in this desolate Iraqi town

CBC NEWS IS THERE: Correspondents Margaret Evans and Derek Stoffel are in Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, bringing you stories from the front lines of the fight against ISIS militants as Canada prepares to join the international coalition military campaign.

All the houses on one street in the northern Iraqi town of Talesskef are unlocked. It seems the people inside didn’t even have time to lock up before they fled as ISIS militants descended on their town on Aug. 6.

The streets in this community that once had about 7,000 residents are now completely empty. Garbage rots on the sidewalks.

Rubble lies outside a home in Talesskef that locals say was used by ISIS as its base in the northern Iraqi town before it was destroyed in a coalition airstrike about two months ago. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The people of Talesskef have not returned to their homes, even though Kurdish Peshmerga forces liberated their town about two weeks after it was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“ISIS is very close to this town, and so the Peshmerga have told them not to come back,” said Ghaswan Illias, a resident of Alqosh, a village further to the north that has, so far, not attracted the attention of the Islamic jihadists.

“The residents are waiting until the Peshmerga controls some more towns around Talesskef and then they will come back for sure.”

But some will come back to find their homes destroyed.

ISIS wired many homes with explosives that were detonated as the fighters fled. Its men used at least one home as a base, and it was hit by a coalition airstrike meant to push the militants out, local Peshmerga fighters say.

Talesskef lies about 30 kilometres north of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which fell to ISIS about four months ago.

Frequent attacks

Peshmerga soldiers defend Talesskef and other towns north of the front line around Mosul. Soldiers say they face frequent attacks, including a barrage of mortar fire at dusk on Thursday.

Talesskef residents have sought shelter in communities to the east that they feel are safer. 

Across Iraq, tens of thousands have fled in fear of the ISIS threat. Syrians are on the run, too.

Ghaswan Illias lives in the northern Iraqi village of Alqosh, a community that so far has not attracted the attention of Islamic jihadists. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north has recently opened its northern border with Turkey to residents of the embattled Syrian city of Kobani.

More than 7,300 have made the long journey from the Kurdish enclave into Turkey and then crossed over to Iraq.

“It was very difficult in Kobani with ISIS there. So that’s why we had to run away,” said Shamsa Aziz, who arrived at the border crossing in Zakho, in northern Iraq, with her family on Wednesday.

Not everyone who has fled Kobani has been as fortunate as the Aziz family.

Ali Oussman said his brother, Abdul, was heading toward the Iraqi border when he was seized by ISIS men.

“We are always asking about him,” Oussman said, adding that there are few answers when someone is taken by the Islamic State.


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.