Sinjar, Iraq, December 2015. Major Adel Sleman poured more sweet tea into a small glass. It was cold outside the half-built shed we were sitting in, and we inched closer to the jet-black stove. Kurdish men stood next to small mattresses they had arranged on top of cinder blocks around the stove. Each man seemed to have a different style of camouflage. The pot-bellied major with his loose-fitting fatigues looked dressed ready to blend into a jungle. His colleague Major Hussein Yusuf wore forest green. Even though it was cold, the two men didn’t put on coats.
‘I’ve spent 19 years working in demining,’ said Sleman. Born in 1963 in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, he had been a Peshmerga, or Kurdish soldier, since the 1990s. The younger men under his command, making their beds in a nearby house, were new to soldiering. ‘Sometimes we are here for a month, or up to six months. It depends on necessity.’
Here, for now, was an abandoned house at the foot of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. I’d arrived at night, so the mountain looming behind us only appeared in my imagination. A long hump rising out of the tan desert was what it was supposed to look like, according to photos I’d seen online. The drive over the mountain that night had been done in pitch black. There was no electricity in this part of Iraq. The infrastructure, such as power lines, had been destroyed during the battles to liberate the area from Islamic State.
At night your surroundings become increasingly intimate in a place without electricity. A car feels like a lonely spacecraft. At the abandoned house, there was a generator the Peshmerga were using, but it was only enough for a few lights. In the distance another generator hummed.
There was another unit of soldiers somewhere out there. One of the younger soldiers shined a large flashlight on the houses and hills around us. Poking into the distance, the light found a ridgeline. The extremists of Islamic State had been cleared from this area a month before I arrived, in November 2015. But the men were cautious. Their AK-47s were slung over their backs or perched nearby.
Sleman had been one of the first Peshmerga to enter a US-led coalition demining training course. His team of engineers was then given an MRAP or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle, and sent into the field. But it had not been easy. ‘We lost six men from the same family, and they died because we don’t have the right equipment to destroy the mines.’
This was a suicide mission, Sleman thought. On his Samsung phone he showed photos of the last weeks his men had spent in Sinjar city, just south of the mountain, combing through tunnels and houses for what Isis had left behind. They had come as liberators, but they found a city of ghosts. This was the city Isis had overrun in August 2014. It was where thousands of Yazidi women and children had been taken before being sold into slavery. More than thirty mass graves, filled with the decaying bodies of men and elderly women, pockmarked the fields around the city. These killing fields had been found in the last few days between the city of Sinjar and the former Yazidi villages beyond. Many of them were within shouting distance of the front line. ‘Daesh must be punished and revenge taken for what they did,’ Sleman said. ‘It’s not my job to decide whether they go to heaven or hell, but rather to send them to Allah to decide.’
How cold can it get in northern Iraq, I’d joked when packing to come to Sinjar. It’s a desert. It’s Iraq. It’s warm. But in December it’s cold, and the cold creeps up on you. Major Sleman offered me lodgings with his officers. ‘Do you snore?’ he wondered. I did, and anyway the mattress next to the outdoor stove looked more comfortable than sleeping on the floor of what had once been a modest two-room house. Outside, under the stars. So I waddled back to the stove; its rusted exterior held the bits of warmth of a dying fire. The young man with the flashlight, tall and handsome with large eyebrows, came over to sit. He was supposed to be doing guard duty. So with his AK-47 propped against my makeshift bed, I pulled up my jacket, put down an old shirt for a pillow, and curled up next to the fire. Several hours later I awoke to the cold and a sense of shuffling. The major was there with a giant blanket that he tucked over me. I went back to sleep.
In the morning the sound of animals, some kind of sheep-like noises and a man shouting woke me. The sun wasn’t up yet, and it was that beautiful, special time of dawn. No one was awake in the compound, save the Peshmerga on guard duty. He was slumped by the still slightly warm fire.
Last night the pitch black had obscured the settings. Now the small house at the back of the walled compound was visible. Kurdish graffiti in Arabic script was spray-painted on it. There were two adjacent doors to the rooms occupied by officers and men of the demining team. Behind the house the foothills of Mount Sinjar, drab and khaki-colored, stretched into the distance. Little trees dotted them. Walking up toward the little trees was the source of the bleating and clanging, a herd of sheep and a young man out for a morning graze.
The rectangular compound, besides the two-room house and the stove with a shed built over it, included a concrete outhouse and another small enclosure against one wall. The outhouse, which the men used, was freezing cold, far colder than the outside air. It was as if it had absorbed all the cold of the night and kept it inside. At least this masked the wretched smells from below. In northern Iraq, many toilets are of the squat variety, just a hole in the ground. There was no toilet paper, just a small watering can, like one might use for flowers, to wash after.
Near to the entrance of the compound was a blue tarp propped over a bunch of gray buckets, tin cans, an oil drum and bottles. Wires and chunks of concrete and bits of tape were fastened to the buckets and cans.
These were the leftovers of the demining. Over the years Isis had become experts in making improvised explosive devices or IEDs. They’d learned this skill from years of insurgency and terror against the Iraqi government and the US Army before 2014. Now Isis handiwork had ended up here, in this compound. It was a bit disconcerting that I’d been sleeping so close to all these explosives. They had been neutralized, their wires cut like in some movie, but they still contained dangerous explosives.
‘Breakfast?’ Vager Saadullah asked. Saadullah was a local journalist turned fixer. We had driven out together to Sinjar. While I’d been checking out the outhouse and IEDs, the compound had begun to wake up. Major Yusuf, the skinny commander, was up and doing calisthenics. He did chin-ups above a door of the house. One of the young Peshmerga put a pan on the stove and threw on some eggs. These were the eggs we’d bought from Shariah, a Yazidi refugee camp, the day before. When they were fried, Saadullah brought a plastic plate with a wedge of soft cheese. The eggs were an explosion of flavor, more complex and tastier than eggs I’d remembered. Perhaps I was just hungry, but it seemed odd to find such a wonderful egg in the cold in the compound of soldiers in the midst of a vicious war.
Seth J. Frantzman’s After Isis: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East is published by Gefen.