Jalal Jabat Uddin, 23, sits with his unit comrades an hour after his best friend and fellow Peshmerga solider, Bemal, 22, was killed by sniper fire during a six hour operation to retake a village from ISIS, north of Mosul. Peshmerga forces have hugely outnumbered ISIS in recent offensives, but fatalities have remained high and struck at the heart of the force. From suicide bombings to booby traps, snipers to posing as refugees, IS has employed tactics for the sole purpose of maximising the body count.
Anah, 8, is the last surviving sibling of five. Her three brothers and younger sister were killed in fighting earlier this year as ISIS tightened its grip on their village near Qayarra during Peshmerga and Iraqi offensives. She now lives with her mother and aunts in Debaga camp.
“I’ve always been more interested in the effects of war than the spectacle of it,” photojournalist Souvid Datta explains.
He spent three weeks in Northern Iraq in August of this year, visiting families displaced in camps and setting foot on the front lines of the battle for Mosul, embedded within the Peshmerga forces as they advanced on the city. He drank tea with the soldiers, and when he wasn’t at home with his fixer in Erbil, he slept where he could: “In an abandoned school, in dug-out checkpoints in the ground, on a roof once.”
Datta comes from an academic background; he studied both law and conflict in school and has a profound understanding of conflict in the Middle East. He entered Iraq with training in first aid and hostile environments, and he knew the risks. Still, this journey was a difficult one.
“The fronts themselves are unpredictable,” he says, “hours of waiting will suddenly be interrupted by a burst of heavy fire or an ISIS car bomb speeding your way.”
Perhaps the hardest part for Datta wasn’t putting himself in harm’s way but witnessing what had been done to others.
One scene has etched itself into his memory: a boy soldier for ISIS dead on the Khazer frontline. “There lay a corpse – alone and small, with tattered clothes fluttering in the gust,” he remembers, and although the boy’s limbs had been severed, his face was undamaged. Datta could see what he had looked like and estimated him to be about ten or eleven years old.
In the months since Datta was in Iraq, the media coverage of Mosul has become even more frenzied. It’s also become more dangerous. While the photojournalist would be open to returning, his personal focus isn’t as much on the conflict as it is on what happens after it. Thinking back on the refugees he met along the way, Datta says, “I think the worst of that is yet to come.”
In his line of work, Datta doesn’t have the luxury of losing all hope. He’s witnessed the terrors human beings are capable of perpetrating against each other, but he’s also seen real courage and perseverance.
The photographer’s own fixer, for instance, had himself fled the country and made his way into Syria, Turkey, and finally, to a refugee camp in Germany. He had returned home to Iraq to help others, like Datta, tell their story.
“It’s been important for me to highlight the enduring resilience and strength, the enterprise and compassion of people caught up in terrible conditions,” the photojournalist writes, “if war can push daily norms so far as to bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best.”
To follow Datta’s work, follow him on Instagram.
Farang, 24, lies exhausted after a brutal day of fighting and heavy losses within in his Peshmerga bunker on the front lines against ISIS near Khazer.
Peshmerga soldiers pose to take photos with a killed ISIS child soldier after hours of intense fighting between the Kurdish Peshmerga and ISIS combatants along the Khazer river.
Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers on the Khazer front lines near Mosul, seen through the broken window of a house destroyed in fighting with ISIS hours earlier. The villages along the Nineveh plains by the Khazer river lie some 70km east of Mosul making for a strategic regional stronghold that is still hotly contested by ISIS and Peshmerga soldiers.
Kurdish fighter Honer, 22, holds the front line against Islamic State militants outside the town of Sinjar, northern Iraq. By the Syrian border, the town was the site of the brutal massacre of the Yazidi population by ISIS in August 2014. More recently, backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led military coalition, Kurdish forces retook the town from ISIS in November 2015, though shelling by ISIS can be heard daily, ringing out across the destroyed city.
Kurdish Yazidi women from the ‘Sun Force Battalion’ train in the town of Snuny, near ISIS front lines by the Syrian border. Only two years ago, many of these women were abducted by ISIS and kept as wives and sex-slaves during the systematic massacre that ISIS perpetrated against Yazidi people. Now, having escaped, they enlisted within the Peshmerga’s growing minority of female forces, preparing to fight ISIS in the forthcoming battle for Mosul.
Buildings lay in ruins in the Iraqi town of Sinjar. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, Kurdish forces retook the town from ISIS in November 2015. It still remains a site of continued fighting, with skirmishes breaking out by the outskirts, and daily ISIS shelling occurring throughout the city.
Families flee from villages surrounding the de-facto ISIS capital of Mosul in Iraq. Their homes, bombed out by coalition airstrikes and months of frontline fire, lie in ruins. They escaped through the dark of night, with only their children and precious essentials – a few clothes, water, and photographs. Set to join the more than 3.3 million internally displaced people that Iraq is struggling to support, the peace of their previous rural lives has vanished in an instant, and their fate stands unknown.
A young Iraqi boy waits with his family inside a Peshmerga base near Erbil. After having walked through the dark of night to avoid siting by ISIS, he will now be sent the overcrowded to Debaga IDP camp.
Faruq, 6, lies fast asleep in a UNHCR arrival centre for new IDP applicants at Debaga camp. Days earlier, his mother led his family of 12 out of Mosul in the dark of night, walking through contested territories and risking recapture by ISIS, following the public execution of their father on the streets of Mosul for speaking out of turn.
A family within the Debaga refugee camp shares a photograph of their eldest son, who was killed by ISIS for trading without their permission. Days after he went missing near Gwer, they received a message from ISIS written on the back of a photograph, explaining that their son had been executed for abandoning Islam.
Beneath Erbil’s main bazaar, Bakhtiar Aziz runs his family’s gun shop. Before the fighting with ISIS, he and his son (centre) mainly fixed hunting guns. Now he repairs weapons for Peshmerga fighters for free.
Lake Dukan is a large reservoir north of Slemani that is a hugely popular vacation spot for Kurds—and Arabs. Every weekend during warm weather the lake and the region around it is filled with picnicking families dressed in traditional clothing, tour groups, and students, some of whom spend hours driving along bad roads to reach Dukan. Despite Iraq’s fledgling economy and the constant shadow of war against ISIS – with front lines less than an hour’s drive away – people continue to exhibit extraordinary resilience and maintain a life full of trade and community.
All images © Souvid Datta