SINJAR, IRAQ — Once an idyllic mountainside town, Sinjar lay in tatters on Friday, its streets strewn with rubble and the litter of war after Islamic State militants melted away in the face of heavy air bombardment and a two-day offensive led by Kurdish fighters.
After 15 months under the grip of the extremists, Sinjar was rapidly entered Friday morning by Kurdish forces who seemingly faced little resistance. Many militants had fled overnight to nearby villages, Kurdish commanders said.
The members of the minority Yazidi sect who once lived in the now-broken town are the victims of some of the Islamic State’s most notorious atrocities, including the capture of thousands of women and young girls who have been traded as sex slaves. The suffering of the Yazidis drew worldwide attention to the previously little-known community, with President Obama citing their plight as he announced the start of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq last year.
For Yazidi fighters who took part in the offensive to free the city, the day of their return was heavy with emotion.
“It’s all destroyed, it’s miserable,” said Jirdo Abdo Azero, 55, head of a Yazidi clan.
“They took our houses, they took our girls,” added colleague Rashol Hussein Khader. “They took everything the Yazidis had and left.”
Weeks of airstrikes by U.S.-led coalition warplanes paved the way for the much-publicized offensive by forces aligned with the government of Iraq’s Kurdish region, who in the end saw little in the way of street-to-street fighting.
“It was very easy,” said Azhi Khader, 25, a Kurdish fighter, as he sat outside what was once the town’s hospital. Downed wires crisscrossed the street. “There was a little fighting this morning, nothing big.”
While parts of the town remained too dangerous to enter in the morning, by the afternoon it appeared devoid of Islamic State militants. The occasional explosion rang out from booby-trapped buildings, as the town remained laced with improvised explosive devices.
Media crews surveyed the damage. Soldiers shared lunch on the streets. The gunfire was largely celebratory — until a lone Islamic State gunman made a last stand. From a building in the city center, he shot two Kurdish soldiers as they walked past, killing one and wounding the other in the leg before fleeing the building.
Fighters ran for cover before regrouping to close in on the area. The shooter was eventually found and killed, they said.
Commanders and fighters said they hadn’t expected the town to fall so quickly, but many credited the airstrikes. Two soldiers drove a pickup truck they said they had found abandoned by the militants, its engine still running.
The fall of Sinjar deprives the Islamic State of its main route between Raqqa, its capital in Syria, and its stronghold of Mosul in Iraq.
The U.S. military said it carried out 12 airstrikes in the area on Thursday. These struck five Islamic State tactical units and destroyed 27 fighting positions, three heavy machine guns, five vehicles and 11 staging areas, while also cutting off the group’s “access to terrain,” according to a release.
Lt. Adnan Ismail Yasin, 28, who fought on the eastern side of the city, said the U.S. airstrikes “played a great role.”
But also notable were those who weren’t given credit for the fight. At a press conference, Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, stressed that the fighters on the ground “were only peshmerga.” Yet while thousands of Yazidis have joined the peshmerga ranks, many have fought with other groups.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has fought in the area for more than a year, as has its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Trucks of YPG fighters could be seen driving out of Sinjar on Friday morning.
“There was an agreement made,” said Capt. Ziyad Shamo, a Yazidi fighter. Several other fighters likewise referred to a deal being cut in the days leading up to the offensive, as internal wrangling over who should be credited for the fight stalled the battle, though they said they did not know the details.
Many said those details didn’t matter, as long as the town was freed — or what was left of it.
Sami Edo Badr, 25, surveyed the damage at three stores that were owned by his family, their fronts now blown out and blackened by fire. Metal sheeting lay twisted outside. “It’s chaos and destruction, but we have to stay and rebuild,” he said. “It’s our home, and everybody needs their home.”
But as with many who picked through the downed wiring and flattened buildings, his thoughts were with those who could not return. “We are glad Sinjar is liberated, but it hurts to think of our girls,” he said.
When asked about the suffering experienced by the Yazidis over the past year, he was unable to speak, wiping his tears with a scarf before walking away.