A wisp of smoke rose from the outcrop of dull grey houses. There was a hint of red. It was moving.

Could there be people in the village?

The green undulating land, 30 km east of Mosul in Iraq, looked straight from a pastoral dream, but over the last three years, ravaged by war, the villages here had fallen empty.

After they had captured Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul in June 2014 and declared it the capital of the Islamic State, the fighters of ISIS had pushed eastwards, taking towns and villages, till an international coalition led by the US began to bomb their positions. It wasn’t until October 2016, however, that this stretch was conclusively retaken from ISIS.

In the last week of April, one village seemed to be slowly coming back to life.

A dirt track led uphill to the small village of Tarjali, where the grey cement houses seemed largely intact, barring shattered window panes and pockmarks from sniper fire. There were indeed people in the village – except that all of them were children.

This house in the small village of Tarjali survived the war.

“We are originally from here,” said the oldest of them, a 12-year-old boy, Mohamad Salam Kanaan Hassan. “We were displaced by Da’esh,” he added, using the Arabic word for ISIS.

“We were in school when the shooting broke out,” he continued. “We used to have a factory, we used to have a water tank that was destroyed by shrapnel. I used to have chickens and goats and ducks, I used to have a small farm here, everything has been destroyed.”

Fleeing the war, his family had initially moved to Gogjali, a town outside Mosul, where they had relatives. “We stayed in a tent there, but they told us you are Kurds, you cannot stay with Arabs, you have to leave,” he said. “So we left and went to Erbil.”

Erbil is the capital of Kurdistan, the autonomous region in Iraq that is home to its Kurdish ethnic minority.

On official maps, the village of Tarjali is part of Iraq’s Nineveh province. But for all practical purposes, the area is now under the control of Kurdish forces.

The question of Kurds

The Kurds, who are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, after Arabs, Persians and Turks, are often described as one of the largest stateless people in the world. When western powers redrew the region’s map in the 1920s after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were left stranded across four nations – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Iraqi Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, account for about 18% of the country’s 32 million population. Their political aspirations for an independent Kurdistan were met by brutal suppression under Saddam Hussein, who launched Al-Anfal, a counter-insurgency campaign in 1998, killing more than 100,000 Kurds and causing a million to flee. In March that year, the residents of the Kurdish town of Halabja woke up to a strange smell. Their skin started to peel. In the chemical attack on their city, 5,000 people perished.

In 1991, on the intervention of the US, the Kurds won a safe haven in the north of Iraq in the form of a “no-fly zone”. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 paved the way for greater autonomy as the new constitution recognised an autonomous region of Kurdistan, made up of four provinces.

A souvenir shop sells fridge magnets showing the Kurdistan flag and its president Masoud Barzani.

Kurdistan is, for most practical purposes, an independent country. It issues its own visas and has its own military called the Peshmerga. Sprung from a hardened insurgent force, the Peshmerga, which means “those who face death”, halted the advance of the Islamic State in 2014, when pushing eastwards, ISIS fighters had reached 25 kms short of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

Since then, with help from the US-led international coalition, the Peshmerga have ousted ISIS, village by village. In the process, they have expanded the Kurdish footprint, taking over territories that were earlier held by the Iraqi army. Some of the territories taken by the Peshmerga, including oil-rich Kirkuk, have been claimed by the Kurds as part of Kurdistan for a long time. They argue that these were Kurdish areas until Saddam Hussein, in pursuit of his policy of “Arabisation”, forced the local Kurds to flee and relocated Arabs in their place.

For now, there is an uneasy stalemate. The Kurdish and Iraqi forces are both US allies in the war against ISIS.

But the tensions between the two are palpable – on the road from Erbil to Mosul, the security checkpoints of both the forces have the air of border crossings. Before the war, the last Kurdish checkpoint on the road was Kalak, 30 km from Erbil. Now, it is a good 55 km away.

If Iraq’s sectarian divide between Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs forms the backdrop to its war against ISIS, the ethnic divide between Kurds and Arabs might form its future.

After ISIS has been defeated, will the Kurds retreat from their newly gained territories? It seems unlikely given what is happening in the villages.

A checkpoint on the way to Mosul, manned by the Kurdish forces.

A ghost village

In better times, Hassan Sham would have been a large, bustling village. Now it is a ghost settlement, with every tenth home reduced to rubble. On the walls, graffiti celebrates the victory of the Peshmerga.

An officer of the Kurdish security forces said the village was retaken from ISIS towards the end of 2015. Eight Peshmerga men were killed in the operation. “Half the people of this area had joined ISIS,” he said. “They had became fighters. Some even rose to become commanders in ISIS.”

Most of the houses were destroyed in airstrikes, he said, while some were demolished because they were booby trapped with IEDs that the Peshmerga were unable to defuse.

A demolished house in Hassan Sham village.

But the Human Rights Watch has found such claims unsatisfactory. A report on the conduct of the Kurdish forces in 21 villages found that the claim “regarding the need to destroy homes to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in villages they captured from ISIS does not stand up to scrutiny”. The researchers instead found a disturbing pattern of unlawful demolitions. In some villages, the Kurdish forces had “destroyed only Arab homes while leaving Kurdish ones intact”, and in others, they had “demolished buildings in villages that ISIS had never captured”.

In Hassan Sham, a faint sign on a house said its owner was Kurd – the house stood unharmed.

Masoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan Regional Government, told Human Rights Watch in a meeting in July 2016 that his government “would not allow Sunni Arabs to return to villages that had been ‘Arabized’ under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, saying these were, in his view, rightfully Kurdish areas”.

For now, it appears Hassan Sham’s residents have moved to the gleaming white city of tents that has sprung up behind the village. It was a refugee camp run by the Barzani Charity Foundation, named after Masoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa Barzani.

The camp in Hassan Sham village.

The manager of the camp confirmed that the Arab residents of Hassan Sham lived among the 8,000 people housed in 2,000 tents. “Because of the security situation, they do not have permission to stay in the village,” he said, turning down Scroll.in’s request to interview them, saying he was not authorised to grant access.

On the question of Hassan Sham’s future, the Kurdish security officer gave a clear response. “All these areas retaken with sacrifice. Peshmerga dropped blood to retake the area, all the way to last checkpoint. Iraqi army did not drop blood.”

So the areas should remain with the Peshmerga?

“Of course,” he laughed.

The real challenge

Taking and defending territory is one thing. Providing services to its people is another.

In Tarjali village, the children walked us over to the source of their drinking water – a flowing drain.

Hassan, the 12-year-old boy playing the role of the adult, warned us that there were still IEDs in the area. His parents had asked him to ensure the children did not venture too far from home.

“I don’t know how to spend my time,” he said. “I wish I had something to play with. I wish I had a playground.”

The source of water for the people of Tarjali.

The voices of the children finally led a woman to step out of her house. Two men appeared and joined the conversation – one of them was Hassan’s father. About 20 Kurd families lived in the village, they said. Everybody escaped in 2014 when they heard that ISIS was coming.

“We heard that they would come and take cattle, sheep, women. Therefore, people left their properties and ran away,” said Mahar Hassan Kanaan, a man in his fifties, who made a living by breaking stones in a gypsum quarry before ISIS came. “People said it would only take 15 days and all would be sorted, but it took three years.”

In Erbil, the families had struggled to find work. Alisha Ali Marei said she sold all her valuables but ran out of money to pay the rent. The family of eight returned last week to the village to find the homes had been ransacked – in peculiar ways. The motor of a refrigerator was stolen but the shell was left behind. Not that it mattered greatly – there was no electricity in the village since the transformers had been ripped off the poles.

After their return, the families had focused their energies on closing down the tunnel that ISIS had dug not far from their homes. “Otherwise, snakes might come and live here,” said Kanaan.

After he came back to his village, Kanaan closed the tunnel dug by ISIS, as seen behind him.

There had been no signs of the government, barring the military. With no electricity, no water, life was tough, said the sturdy-looking man.

Did it matter to him which government manned the area – Kurdistan or Iraq?

“We will stay and support anyone who will meet our needs and provide us with food, electricity and water,” he said. “Whether this side or the other side, does not matter.”