This is the English language version of our article published today in Il Giornale’s The Eyes Of War.
The old woman huddled on the floor in front of us is wiping away her tears with hands adorned in tattoos of Christian crosses. She is beseeching us, however no one present knows what she is so desperately trying to communicate. The problem is that she speaks an Assyrian dialect, a rare language found in northern Iraq that neither our military escorts, our interpreter or we understand.
This is not just any old woman either. She is the last resident in a town that once numbered more than 10,000 inhabitants. And yet, she remains a mystery.
No one in the area knows what her background is or who her family were or are, but all attempts to relocate her to a safer and more comfortable haven elsewhere have been met with vigorous resistance on her part. And so it is that she now passes the long hot hours of the Iraqi summer in an abandoned home that was badly damaged in recent fighting. Empty, aside from a tattered mattress and some old blankets on the cement floor along with a bag of rice and a bottle of water next to her, it is a lonely existence.
“We bring her food and water and check in on her, but she has something wrong with her leg. She can’t walk well. So, she just spends all day sitting here alone and staring at the empty walls. None of us understand what she is always trying to tell us though,” explains a Peshmerga fighter escorting us through the village. He mentions that they have figured out that her name is Camilia and that she might have some family members living overseas, but this represents everything they know about her and her story.
Her adamant refusal to leave is extraordinary not just for her life in a ruined home without electricity or running water, but even in a country battered by years of war, her village of Telskuf stands out for the intensity of the fighting to control it and for the extent of its destruction. Strategically important, Telskuf lies about 30 km from Mosul, and control of the town places an occupying force in position to control what is presently a vital road connecting the north and south of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Thus, ISIS is intent on gaining control of Telskuf, and the Kurdish Peshmerga who control this territory, are equally determined to prevent ISIS from doing so. As such, the town remains very much on the front line and daily mortar barrages and probing attacks are very much a part of life here.
Telskuf’s residents fled in 2014 when ISIS seized their town during the lightning offensive across northern Iraq which also brought Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul under their control. Pressure on the Islamic militants from air strikes and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters eventually led ISIS to withdraw from Telskuf. However, residents have not returned to the devastated town as it remains a battleground.
In fact, Telskuf was overrun by the Islamic State just a month ago in early May in an offensive said to have involved hundreds of ISIS fighters and dozens of armored vehicles, and that garnered a fair amount of attention in Western media outlets due to the death of U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV.
The arrival of ISIS the first time brought with it a wave of looting, killing and destruction. Nevertheless, Camilia somehow survived this first attack by the Islamic militants. Their second invasion was even more destructive as the Islamic State fighters set many of the remaining buildings in the town on fire.
“She was the last survivor in Telskuf,” another of our Kurdish Peshmerga escorts says with obvious respect in his voice. “When Daesh overran the village last month, she was the only one left here.” He goes on to describe what she would have experienced as a mix of smoke and flames, ferocious firefights, thunderous explosions toppling buildings throughout the town and the sound of doors being kicked in as the Islamic militants searched for other survivors seeking to hide. Having survived the first wave of plundering and killing in 2014, one can only wonder what ran through Camilia’s mind when, for a second time, Islamic State fighters swept into Telskuf.
We are also left wondering what is running through Camilia’s mind now as her face etched in anguish needs no interpreter to understand. That she is deeply traumatized is evident, but by what, one can only speculate. We do not know the atrocities she may have witnessed or the terror that she has experienced. We do not know if her loved ones have been killed, imprisoned or if, indeed, some did manage to flee overseas. If there is anyone left out there that knows who she is and cares about her, it is not known if they even know she is alive. We do not know if Camilia was wealthy or poor. We do not know what she has accomplished in her life and what hopes, dreams or ambitions she may have.
With no identity, Camilia remains yet another anonymous victim in a war with countless mini tragedies and injustices that will never become known. However, she is perhaps unique in being a living symbol for all anonymous victims in this war.