Middle East

Displaced Iraqis watch Mosul offensive with longing and fear

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016 file photo, a customer gets his beard trimmed by Faris Khatham at a makeshift barbershop inside the Baharka camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. Khatham was a carpenter before he fled Hamdaniyah, a small mostly Christian and Shabak village also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida on Mosul’s eastern outskirts. He now works as a barber in the dusty Baharka camp for displaced Iraqis, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Mosul. He’s been watching nervously as Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State group advance slowly through villages and over exposed wide-open terrain toward his hometown.(AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic, File)

    FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016 file photo, a customer gets his beard trimmed by Faris Khatham at a makeshift barbershop inside the Baharka camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. Khatham was a carpenter before he fled Hamdaniyah, a small mostly Christian and Shabak village also known as Qaraqosh and Bakhdida on Mosul’s eastern outskirts. He now works as a barber in the dusty Baharka camp for displaced Iraqis, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Mosul. He’s been watching nervously as Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State group advance slowly through villages and over exposed wide-open terrain toward his hometown.(AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016 file photo, two boys play with a wheelchair at the Baharka camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. The camp outside Irbil _ the capital of Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdistan region _ houses just a fraction of the more than a million people already uprooted by Islamic State militants in Iraq’s north. The camp is home to more than 4,000 people, almost all from Mosul, according to the camp’s management. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic, File)

    FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016 file photo, two boys play with a wheelchair at the Baharka camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. The camp outside Irbil _ the capital of Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdistan region _ houses just a fraction of the more than a million people already uprooted by Islamic State militants in Iraq’s north. The camp is home to more than 4,000 people, almost all from Mosul, according to the camp’s management. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016 file photo, a man walks inside the Baharka camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. The camp outside Irbil _ the capital of Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdistan region _ houses just a fraction of the more than a million people already uprooted by Islamic State militants in Iraq’s north. The camp is home to more than 4,000 people, almost all from Mosul, according to the camp’s management. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic, File)

    FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016 file photo, a man walks inside the Baharka camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. The camp outside Irbil _ the capital of Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdistan region _ houses just a fraction of the more than a million people already uprooted by Islamic State militants in Iraq’s north. The camp is home to more than 4,000 people, almost all from Mosul, according to the camp’s management. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic, File)  (The Associated Press)

Reports about the battle for Mosul play on the TV set in the makeshift barber shop where Faris Khatham cuts hair, but sometimes the news is so overwhelming that he has to change the channel to a sports program.

For Khatham and the more than 4,000 displaced people in the Baharka Camp, the dispatches about the Iraqi military's offensive against the Islamic State group bring a mixture of longing and fear.

The 27-year-old carpenter fled Hamdaniyah, a town on the eastern outskirts of Mosul, and has been watching the reports on the troops' slow advance through villages and terrain toward his former home.

"When you see the town, everything is destroyed," he said. "That causes me pain, and of course I'm devastated."

Almost all of the camp's residents are from Mosul and surrounding communities. The city is Iraq's second-largest and was overrun by the militants in summer 2014. They are just a fraction of the more than 1 million people uprooted by IS in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi military, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, began the offensive to retake Mosul on Oct. 17, and fierce fighting is going on in a belt of villages and towns north, east and south of the city.

Life is hard for Khatham and the others in the dusty Baharka Camp, less than a two-hour drive from Mosul were it not for the fighting. His barber shop is really a temporary structure made of tarpaulins, but he's lucky because there are few opportunities to earn money.

Families live in small tents or single rooms built of concrete and cinderblock. Classrooms are overcrowded. Children do homework on the rocky ground or pass the time by sledding down berms of sand strewn with gravel.

More displaced people could be headed for Baharka. After Iraqi special forces reached the village of Tob Zawa near the eastern edge of Mosul on Tuesday, more than 300 civilians were evacuated, said Maj. Gen. Haider Fadhil. Aid groups warn that more than 100,000 more could be forced from their homes.

Khatham said he's happy that the offensive has begun, although he also is nervous about what's to come.

He said he can't wait to return to Hamdaniyah, a town made up of mostly Christians and members of the Shabak minority. But even after civilians are allowed to return to the area once held by the IS militants, he doesn't think he'll simply be able to pick up where he left off.

The town, which also has been called Qaraqosh and Bakhida, has "changed a lot," Khatham said.

"If we go back, it won't be like our life before. We have to bring it back (to what it was), and hopefully we will," he said.

A camp resident who identified himself only as Abu Omar for fear of retribution described Mosul as his "mother," and even though he is certain that its liberation will mean that much of it is destroyed, it will be worth it just to be able to return home.

"I want to go back to my town," he said, "I want to go back into its arms."

He said he doesn't regret his choice to flee his home.

"Everyone's looking for freedom," he added. "Even if I've suffered and we went through some hard days living through cold weather and rain in tents, ... we've overcome that. We as Iraqis overcome everything."