Islamists Wired This Christian Town With Explosives … And Blew It Up When They Left /  There wasn’t much left when Kurdish forces liberated Talesskef

The Iraqi Christian town of Talesskef, about 30 kilometers from Mosul, once was home to 6,000 people. Fear of advancing Islamic State fighters drove most of the people out. Militants seized the town. Kurdish Peshmerga forces liberated Talesskef back on Aug. 16. But it was a hollow victory. Retreating Islamic State forces wired the community with explosives—and detonated them when they left, leveling many of the buildings.

Now the Peshmerga and former residents are picking through the rubble, salvaging whatever they can.


A bombed out building in Talesskef. Vager Saadullah photo

Militants planted explosives inside most of the houses, but they didn’t have enough time to detonate them all before Peshmerga fighters forced them out of the town.

Gen. Abdulrahman Gawrini, the Peshmerga commander in the area, said that a special team disrupted eight clusters of TNT. He warned there likely are still more explosives hidden around Talesskef.

Un-detonated homemade explosives at a house in Telesskef. Vager Saadullah photo

“I always tell my friends that ISIS has more TNT than we have flour,” the general joked.

Gawrini said the Islamic State militants are experts at making their own explosives. He added that after the Iraqi army abandoned its posts in early June, the militants also helped themselves to explosives that Baghdad’s troops left behind.

The head of a local primary school surveys the wreckage of his home. Vager Saadullah photo

Many people thought air strikes had caused the damage. They couldn’t believe that militants could have caused such devastation. But the Peshmerga showed them the explosives that had been left over. They said the militants had access to high explosives.

Residents return for their belongings. Vager Saadullah photo

Some local people have returned. They’re digging through the rubble, looking for any of their possessions that survived.

Residents search the streets of Talesskef. Vager Saadullah photo

There was a wretched odor coming from inside some of the ruined houses. Some people were afraid that there might be dead bodies rotting in the ruins. Others said it might just be food that had gone bad.

Vager Saadullah photo

Even with the Peshmerga presence, only a handful of residents had the nerve to return.

Most people were too afraid to come back—even briefly—to try to get their belongings. Islamic State forces are a mere five kilometers away from Talesskef.

Militants left graffiti reading “Islamic State” on schools and houses. Vager Saadullah photos

The Peshmerga, for their part, are eager to resume the fight. They acknowledge that the militants are a dangerous enemy.

“Yes they are because they have heavy weapons,” a Yezidi Peshmerga fighter said, “but we are much stronger because of our belief.”

One of his comrades, a Peshmerga, interrupted him. “They are cowards,” he said. “When we entered Telesskef, they were so afraid of us that four of their cars crashed into each other.”

“We will win this war because we are right and that’s why we are fighting together,” a Christian Peshmerga said.

Peshmerga fighters. The man on the left is a Yezidi, the two in the middle are Christians and the two on the right are Yazities. Vager Saadullah photo

“According to our plan to liberate the area, we reached [it] earlier than we planned,” Gawrini said.

“We fought them from the front with moderate weapons and our special forces attacked them at the back,” he added. “They couldn’t defend, thus they put explosives on the main road and the others, which delayed our process to enter the town after they fled.”

A Peshmerga checkpoint at Talesskef. Vager Saadullah photo

Gawrini said that former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki and Syrian president Bashar Assad are to blame for Islamic State’s rise. The militants have heavy weapons and the will to use them.

An up-armored Humvee and a police truck that Peshmerga forces recaptured from Islamic State militants in Talesskef. Vager Saadullah photo

“We ask the international community to assist us with weapons,” he said. “The Peshmerga have become a symbol of defending humanity.”

He warns that the militants are incredibly dangerous and have the ability to attack Europe and the United States.

Gen. Abdulrahman Gawrini. Vager Saadullah photo

The general said he comes from a scenic Kurdish tourist town. He owns land on a river. He said he likes to take time off when the fruit is ripe in his orchard.

But he said this year he’s missing the harvest. And missing his family, too. But he said the war is more important than anything else.

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