Cinders and desolation in Iraq’s Hawija after IS ousted

One side of the billboard calls for war, while the other warns of death for smokers.
Iraq’s Hawija still bears clear signs of its three years under militant rule.
IS group militants set fire to everything they could before they fled an Iraqi government offensive on the northern town in oil-rich Kirkuk province. Thick black smoke billows from burning oil wells around the town. Fields lie scorched in the surrounding region known for its cereal crops and watermelons.
Government troops and paramilitary units on Thursday retook Hawija, one of the IS group’s last bastions in the country. Beside roads leading into the town, villagers throw themselves at passing military convoys begging for food.
“We haven’t seen a teabag or spoonful of sugar for four years,” Um Imed says, tears in her eyes.
“Our children are dying of hunger and go barefoot,” she says, fiddling with the edge of her long black robe, covered in dust from the passing vehicles.
“Only IS families got fat from the taxes they levied on our crops and the quarter of our produce” they took for themselves, she says.
The desolation is the same inside the town, where the 70,000 residents who were believed to have stayed on under IS rule are nowhere to be seen.
In 2014, “when IS seized the town, they used the hospital,” a spokesman for the Hashed al Shaabi paramilitary force said.
“But as the Iraqi forces approached, they wanted to burn everything so no one could use it — despite it being public infrastructure,” Mohammed Khalil says.
But some of the medical centre has survived the flames.
In consultation rooms, glass shards and blood samples litter the floor, while in the nurses’ staffroom, prescriptions, pamphlets and other pieces of paper recount life under IS.
On one sheet of paper headed “IS, Kirkuk province”, militant leaders ask staff to urgently treat “brother Adel, a soldier in the special forces”.
“They too only got things through connections,” a Hashed member scoffs, before slipping away.
Opposite the hospital, no one has entered the town hall for fear it has been booby-trapped.
IS has lost vast swathes of its territory in Iraq since it overran around a third of the country, imposing its
brutal interpretation of law on those it ruled. — AFP