Life in the shadow of ISIS: 'We are afraid to speak'

No one who lives in the territory controlled by ISIS near Kirkuk, Iraq, wants to talk openly about what life is really like, the CBC's Derek Stoffel found when he visited an area at the front lines of the fight against the Islamic militants.

Militants control vast swath of territory from Syria into central Iraq

Fleeing ISIS

The National

7 years ago
Iraqi Christians find refuge in overcrowded churches 2:51

As Canada prepares to take part in the coalition campaign against ISIS, CBC correspondents Margaret Evans and Derek Stoffel are in Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan this week, bringing Canadians stories from the front lines of the fight against the militants.

The world, by now, has seen the gruesome images of the beheadings by ISIS. 

Its men, in their black uniforms, have ruthlessly blown up mosques and carried out execution-style killings of anyone who opposes them.

Hassan Delemi and others living in ISIS-controlled territory near Kirkuk, Iraq, passed through a checkpoint Monday to stock up on supplies in Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

But what about the hundreds of thousands of people who actually live with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

The militants control a vast swath of territory reaching from Syria’s northern border into central Iraq.

At a dusty checkpoint south of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a canal marks the boundary between the area controlled by ISIS and Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.

It’s clear no one who lives in that territory wants to speak openly about what life is really like.

Hundreds of Iraqis who live in ISIS-controlled territory wait at a checkpoint Monday southwest of Kirkuk to enter Iraq's semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

“We are afraid to speak. It's better to shut our mouths,” an elderly woman said Monday when asked about living conditions at home.

Tension was thick in the air as people waited in a long line alongside a barrier of concertina wire. The crowd surged forward and men yelled when someone tried to cut in.

Stocking up

They came from the ISIS side to stock up on cooking gas and groceries, as supplies in their home towns have dried up since ISIS fighters captured the area about four months ago.

Iraqis return to ISIS-controlled territory near Kirkuk after stocking up on groceries and cooking gas on Monday. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Families pushed carts piled high with luggage and mattresses, fleeing the area.

But the vast majority of those at this checkpoint were crossing for a few hours to stock up on supplies, before returning before nightfall.

Hassan Delemi was walking through the dust, carrying a gas canister, heading home to a village near Tikrit.

When asked what life is like living with ISIS in his neighbourhood, he threw up his hands.

“What can we do about ISIS? We just don’t know what to do.”

“Everybody sits in their homes. No one is working. We just wait,” said Delemi.

ISIS 'right over there'

But is his family fearful of the Islamist militants?

“No, no, no,” he shouts, trying to downplay the risk his family faces every day.

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers at the checkpoint said they have seen the ISIS men about 750 metres down the road, where the black ISIS flag flies over a highway overpass.

“Yes, ISIS are right over there,” said one of the young soldiers. “You can see them.”

Peshmerga commander Major Farhad Jabari says he has enough men to take on ISIS fighters but admitted he could use more weapons to try break the stalemate between the two sides. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The Peshmerga commander in the area says the U.S.-led coalition opposed to ISIS launched several airstrikes in the region three days ago.

Major Farhad Jabari boasted that he has enough men — and they have enough courage — to take on the ISIS fighters nearby.

“We are ready any time to defend ourselves and to defend our land.”

Outside help

But he admitted that he could use more weapons — modern weapons — to try to break the stalemate between the two sides.

Iraqi Kurds are keenly aware of the outside help being mustered in the fight against ISIS.

At Erbil airport on Sunday, a Kurdish security guard offered an effusive welcome when he saw my Canadian passport and thanked Canada for its upcoming participation in the coalition campaign.

“You are our friends, thank you,” the guard said.


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.