WYSO

Alice Fordham

Hassan Shami camp, about 15 miles east of Mosul, is pristine, the gravel spotless, the rows of tents still white and mostly empty.

There aren't yet the crowds of children, piles of garish mattresses, makeshift bathtubs, half-eaten bowls of rice and beans that have become familiar sights at Iraq's many camps for about 2 million people now displaced by the fight against the Islamic State.

That is likely to change, and soon.

The Iraqi military and its allies have been pushing for a week toward the city of Mosul, held by the Islamic State. For people fleeing the fighting, a few thousand so far, it's been an unbelievably frightening seven days.

In the Debaga camp for displaced people, about 50 miles southeast of Mosul, which is becoming more crowded, I sit with a family who tell me about leaving the village where they lived under ISIS more than two years.

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In the sunlit courtyard of a mosque, overlooked by jagged mountains, dozens of men arrive to offer condolences to the family of Brigadier Hamid Birmous.

The commander with the Iraqi Kurdish forces known as peshmerga was killed in action by an ISIS bomb during the operation to retake the city of Mosul, which began this week. Iraqi security forces continue to fight their way through villages and countryside outside the city.

To find Mosul's cops, you drive to a gray dot of a village in an endless desert. The village, Mahana, was retaken from the Islamic State a few months ago and for now it's the police base for cops who left Mosul when ISIS took over more than two years ago.

Iraq's army and its allies are now battling their way through rural areas toward the larger prize of retaking Mosul. Helicopters buzz back and forth from the frontlines. Every breath is bitter with smoke from oil wells set alight by ISIS.

The man from Mosul is neat and tidy, in his mid-30s. He uses careful English and tries to stop his voice from trembling as he speaks about the Iraqi city he lived in all his life.

"My mind is full with memories," he says. "Friends. Home. You know — my home. I was born there."

ISIS has occupied Mosul for more than two years. Residents describe a regime of strict rules and savagely violent punishments for breaking them. The man is too afraid of ISIS to give his name or occupation, but he is a professional. He brought up a family in Mosul.

For two weeks, a battle has raged in Aleppo, generating tragic images of injured civilians amid the rubble.

The city — once Syria's most populous and a commercial hub — is a key prize in the civil war. For four years, it has been divided between government and rebel forces and was in effect a military stalemate.

Russia is among the supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. supports rebel forces. They were talking to try to find a way to calm the violence in Syria, but the negotiations collapsed this week.

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