In near-freezing temperatures and a drizzling rain that had turned the red earth to sludge, two colleagues and I trudged through row after row of tents in a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq. “Qais,” about 20 years old, welcomed us inside, where a gas burner provided some warmth and a flashlight illuminated the tent for his family of four.

By the time of our visit in early December, Qais had been at the camp for nine days. He said his family escaped in September from an ISIS-held village only a few kilometres from the front line with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and finally made it to this camp. He is one of a growing number of Iraqis who take immense risks fleeing ISIS but face continued insecurity in government-held territory. We interviewed a dozen people with similar stories.

Qais’s family and about 30 other people fled after an airstrike killed the village head and all eight members of his family: “ISIS guys kept coming to his house and made wireless calls from just outside. They had taken and tortured the village head in the weeks before, suspecting him of informing government forces about their positions. Through their calls, they succeeded in making the coalition think it was an ISIS house, I think. If it were an Iraqi plane, we would have seen it, but the coalition planes fly too high to spot.”

The trek to safety was fraught with danger, especially the possibility of detection by ISIS. Qais said he had tried to flee once before, in mid-June. “I waited for three days in the hills for word that my brother had made it through, but the Peshmerga turned him back. He and I used secret channels to pay off ISIS with 1 million Iraqi dinars [US$800] each so they would not execute us as escapees.”

The escape

In their September escape, Qais said, they reached a village a few kilometres away, after five hours of hiding and moving along a riverbed. The village was completely destroyed, with signs of booby traps in some houses. “The Peshmerga had taken [the village], but retreated the day before, and houses were still smouldering,” Qais said. “We stayed hidden in my uncle’s house nearby at the foot of the hills, and in the dark made our way across the hills.” He walked for hours carrying his mother, who was ill. “On the other side, we saw the Peshmerga positions, raised a white flag, and approached.”

The Peshmerga gave them food and water, but kept them in a no-man’s land just outside their front line with over 100 others. Very quickly, the Asayish, Kurdish political security forces, arrived, Qais said, and confiscated their cell phones and identity documents. “They kept us there for 18 days,” Qais said. By the time they were allowed to cross, over 300 people fleeing ISIS had gathered. “One of the last ones to come had to dodge ISIS shooting at him from the hills. He told us that others in his group were not as quick, and ISIS captured them, eventually releasing the women. He didn’t know what happened to the men.”

When ISIS took this region (not identified for Qais’s safety), a few days after Mosul fell on 10 June 2014, only one villager from the 100 families pledged allegiance and joined, Qais said. ISIS imposed its familiar restrictions on smoking, dress, and women’s ability to move about, threatened lashes for transgressions, and brought their own preacher. “I did not go to the Friday prayers, as I did not want to hear their hateful sermons,” Qais said.

What comes next?

After the family’s escape and 18 days in the open on the front line, the Peshmerga took the group of escapees to a nearby small town, and told them to stay put. The only available shelter was a few unfinished buildings: “We were not allowed to leave, and the Asayish were watching us. We did not have our ID cards anyway, so we could be arrested at any moment.”

The escapees were as wary of the Asayish as of ISIS. The Asayish had detained Qais’s uncle from this small town, charging that he was an ISIS member because he had slaughtered a sheep for their fighters who demanded food, Qais said. After 20 days in detention, the Asayish drove him south to a Kurdish checkpoint near where militias affiliated with the Shia-led Baghdad government exercise control. These militias have arrested and even killed Sunni Arabs like Qais’s family, accusing them of being ISIS supporters.

During his month and a half in the small town, Qais said, two baby girls died. One, the daughter of an acquaintance, “fell ill, she was shivering and crying, and the Kurdish authorities took her to a clinic but did not allow the parents to accompany them. The baby died there.”

In late November, Kurdish security forces ordered Qais and the rest onto buses and drove them to this camp for displaced persons. Now they feel safer, the tent provides better shelter than the unfinished houses, but they and their young children still have to go out into the cold rain to the shared bathroom and cooking shacks. Qais is illiterate and before ISIS came, he had travelled to work odd jobs in Kurdish cities. He wants to go back to his village if the Peshmerga succeed in taking it back from ISIS without destroying the houses. But what comes next, Qais said, he does not know.