NIQASH visited Hawija, a large northern Iraqi town near Kirkuk, which is currently controlled by Sunni Muslim extremists and local tribes. The town is dominated by ISIS’ black flags and ISIS’ rules. And on the way into town, everybody gets a free Koran.
The area south of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk is now controlled by Sunni Muslim extremist fighters – and part of this includes Hawija, a large, mostly Sunni Muslim town. Although there have been clashes between the Sunni Muslim extremists and the Iraqi Kurdish military who control Kirkuk, the road between the two centres is still open.
It is only being used by a few cars: People returning to Kirkuk after visiting their relatives in Hawija or people from Hawija fleeing to Kirkuk, afraid of further problems in the area.
To get to Hawija you need to go through the Kiwan area, which is now known as the “death strip”. The two opposing forces, the Sunni Muslim extremists led by the group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Iraqi Kurdish military, known as the Peshmerga, are stationed on either side of the road. Both sides are on high alert. If anyone fires a bullet over the other side, fighting breaks out.
Hawija was taken over by Sunni Muslim extremists and members of local Sunni Muslim tribes around June 16 after the Iraqi army withdrew.
As you pass the last Peshmerga checkpoint, the soldiers there advise you not to go any further unless it is extremely important. People are being killed on this road and also being abducted by ISIS, they say.
“Be careful, they will ask you well prepared questions about why you’re going into this area and they will verify the information you give them,” one of the soldiers told me. “If you give them the wrong information, you will be in a lot of trouble.”
I had already taken his advice. I studied at the art school in Hawija for several years, I know a lot of people there and I thought it wouldn’t be difficult to enter the area if I carried my ID card from the art school.