We’d been staying in Soran, a city in Northern Iraq surrounded on all sides by breathtaking mountains. Some incredible friends, Billy Ray and Tim Buxton, have been working in the area for years, helping with the local community and the refugee crisis.
Soran has served as a haven for refugees during the war, and many of the local residents serve in the Peshmerga Army. The Peshmerga are a fierce, brave, and loyal force against ISIS. They’re fighting not only for their people, but for the world.
One morning we got up early and headed out of town towards Mosul to visit some of the soldiers on the front line. During the drive I kept looking at the map on my phone. Our location was a blinking blue dot that slowly and steadily got closer and closer to Mosul. It was a surreal experience to be headed towards a place I’d been hearing about in the news for so long. Mosul is only a couple hours away from Soran, and has been under ISIS territory for over two years. ISIS (also known by the locals as “Daesh”) declared themselves to be the religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. They waged brutal warfare and within six months it had control over vast areas of land in Iraq and Syria and had displaced over 2 million refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons). I don’t think I felt fear that any harm would come to us, but it was a strange feeling to be going towards something so menacing instead of running away from it.
More than a bunch of facts and numbers, I couldn’t help but think about all the individual people whose lives have been tragically disrupted – people who lost everything, or were killed by this group. Along the way, our friends told us stories about the bravery of the Peshmerga, and the intense cruelty and unpredictability of ISIS. Stories of loss and cruelty, stories that stick with you, that are impossible to erase from your mind. Such extremism has filled the region with fear and sent people running for their lives.
And yet, there are many who haven’t run. They have banded together, purchased their own uniforms, and hitchhiked or drove their family cars to the front lines to fight back against this extremism. When we arrived at one of the outposts, just a couple kilometers from ISIS territory, we looked over the sandbag barriers into the Mosul plain. One of the soldiers pointed out a ditch, or trench, running through the plain, and explained that on the left side, where we were, was Peshmerga territory. On the right was ISIS, and here he waived his hand and said with vehemence: “Daesh.”
I looked out at all the land on the right of the ditch. I could see dark smudges in the desert and asked about those. Our friends explained that after ISIS takes over a town and is finished with it, they tip over all the oil barrels and light it on fire. Thus, the black smudges were towns and villages ISIS had taken over and then abandoned. It was a heavy sight to see. Such literal and figurative darkness for so many.
It was lunchtime by now, and ever the most hospitable of guests, our new friends invited us into their tent for a meal. There at the front line, next to a map in the ground pointing out outposts and ISIS territories, we feasted on rice and salad and chicken and piping hot tea with piles of sugar in the bottom. We learned about why these men cared so much about this fight. One of them explained that it wasn’t just for him, or his family, or his town, but that his fight was for the world. He told us he wanted to help stop the spread of hatred and control and fight for peace and freedom. He pointed to his gun and said “I hope my gun can protect your families – even in America.”
This was one of the most memorable moments for me. I had to look around and take stock of where I was. How did I get a seat at this table, full of such brave people who were literally risking their lives to save so many lives? It was an honor I’ll never forget, and it inspired me to continue working in Iraq to do whatever we could to support these people.