It will not be the first time that I've been to Rabia, a small city on the border between Iraq and Syria in the province of Ninawa. But the last time I was here was about five years ago and I was visiting with friends. Obviously the situation here has changed a lot since then and this “tour” will be very different.
As news channel Al Jazeera recently reported: “Rabia has changed hands multiple times in fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdish Peshmerga since June. The town has also been at the forefront of fierce fighting due to its strategic importance. Not only is it only half a kilometre away from the main crossing into Syria - it is also [Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State's] main lifeline from Syria to their stronghold of Mosul”.
Today the city, which was once home to around 70,000 locals but which is now mostly deserted, is mostly back in the hands of the Iraqi Kurdish military, or Peshmerga as they are known here.
Before leaving for Rabia I spoke with a Peshmerga officer, Karsoul Kurdi. He told that Rabia had been liberated from the Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State. “But only after fierce battles at the beginning of this month,” he added.
So we leave Dohuk, which is in Iraqi Kurdistan and protected by Iraqi Kurdish troops, and drive to Rabia. We can no longer pass through Zamar the way we used to because parts of the road connecting the two cities are still under the control of the IS group. So we are forced to take a longer route, passing through Fish Khabour, about 85 kilometres north of Dohuk, and adding an extra two and a half hours to the trip.
We pass through a number of villages and towns. The population in this area is mixed with Arabs and Kurds living here. But while some villages, the Kurdish ones mostly, are bustling, others are almost empty. In the villages that were formerly home mainly to Arabs, we see stray dogs and livestock roaming empty streets.
All along the route there are damaged or burned out vehicles and destroyed buildings.
Upon reaching Rabia, I meet with with Colonel Karsoul, who takes me to the Peshmerga's makeshift headquarters in a telecommunications complex. All I see in Rabia is soldiers and in the distance, columns of black smoke rising into the sky. The columns of smoke have become a familiar sight on the road here.
I also meet with the commander of the Peshmerga forces who have succeeded in taking Rabia back, Major General Halkurd Khader. He tells me that a number of his forces were killed during the fighting and this was mostly because, despite most of them being driven out, some of the IS fighters remained in the town. They hid themselves in a hospital in the city and ambushed the Peshmerga.
We take a tour of Rabia. It is almost empty of any sign of ordinary life. There are some chickens on the street as well as the usual stray dogs. The houses seemed to be mostly intact but all of the doors are hanging open and walls are pockmarked by bullet holes. The city is dirty and there are some fairly terrible smells coming from behind some of the walls.
We approach the hospital which was the scene of the last serious battle between the Peshmerga and the IS group here. It is a relatively new three-storey building.
“This was where about 20 of the IS fighters hid, together with their weapons. They also had snipers,” Kurdi tells me. “They fought the Peshmerga for about one day and there were also air strikes. At the end of that day though, they escaped the city. They left some corpses behind and they really stink,” the military man told me.
It was hard to move around inside the hospital building because the interior was very smashed up. The roof had been destroyed too; there was blood everywhere as well as spent cartridges.
Part of the reason that Rabia is so important is because of its location on the border. On the Syrian side of the border the territory is now controlled by Syrian Kurds. Kurdi says there's been communication and coordination between the two Kurdish military groups, so we decide to go there.
At the border crossing we meet two female Syrian Kurdish fighters who are guarding the spot, armed with Kalashnikovs. Their commander, an older man named Akram Rammo, comes to meet us too. As he approaches, he calls out in Kurdish, smiling: “how are you, comrades?”
While we were standing there I also heard the call go out for noon prayers so I asked Rammo about this. “On our side of the border, life is just going on as normal and people are moving around freely,” he replied. “We control the town of Yarubiya and people are just going about their daily business there. Especially now that the IS group have been expelled from Rabia.”
The final part of my tour of this fiercely contested area was a quick trip to the new front line, where the Peshmerga and the IS fighters continue to face off. It is south of Rabia city and there are many high and fortified barriers made out of dirt here. Behind them stand heavily armed Iraqi Kurdish troops.
Kurdi pointed at a village we could just see, about one kilometre away. “That's where the IS fighters are now,” Kurdi told me.
Using binoculars I was able to see the IS group's black flags raised over the buildings of the village.
And then my tour of this particular war zone is over. Like any good traveler I take some pictures of the sights – the quiet streets and the destruction – before I leave again. But unlike most tourists, the pictures don't make me smile. They make me want to cry – for the empty houses, empty streets and for the warmth and life that are no longer here.