Since January, more than 1.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes due to fighting between Shia-led government forces and mostly Sunni anti-government militants, according to the UN.
The advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and other armed groups into Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, this month led to an increase in displacement, especially into the relatively safer semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north.
In a half-built hotel in downtown Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, IRIN found a group of families who had fled the city of Tikrit in Salaheddin Province the week before. The men were sleeping at the open-fronted street level, while the women and children were downstairs in a cramped and unventilated basement.
Two men from the group shared their stories:
Abu Salah*, 38, resident of Tikrit
“Militants entered Tikrit and we saw them - they were wearing black masks and driving government vehicles. Then the planes started bombing nearby. A whole family was killed. A girl who was our neighbour went to see the fighting and she was shot in the arm.
“During the Friday prayer sermon, the militants said: ‘We are the Islamic state. This government is oppressive. Islamic laws must now be implemented.’
“There were no services, no hospitals, gas, electricity, but we weren’t scared of the militants, just the bombings.
“My nephew is a soldier and said he would put fuel in his car first and then follow us. After we left, they arrested him. They executed him and his body was found today. We had left and he was supposed to come with us.
“We came via the Kirkuk road. There were militants on the road but they didn’t bother us. They just said ‘go, go’.
“After the militants came [into Tikrit], no one went out. Everyone stayed inside with the doors locked. There were vegetables to eat but not enough.
“It was very difficult leaving behind our homes and work but we were forced to. Now we don’t know what’s happening because we don’t have a television.
“We only came with what we were wearing. Now, apart from security, we have nothing.
“At first, in Erbil, we stayed in a hotel which was 100,000 Iraqi dinars [US$90] for a room. We didn’t have the means to stay, so we came down and put our stuff in the street. The owner saw this and said, ‘I have this basement downstairs they are working on’. Now we drink water at the local mosque tap and wash there too.
“We have a two-month-old child with allergies from the cement dust, and in the basement, where the women live, it is very hot. We have been here for four days and we can only stay temporarily because they have to do more work. Maybe at the weekend the owner will need this place back.
“We left in a hurry and we will have to go back because we can’t live here. The women haven’t showered for weeks because they are embarrassed and there is no privacy for them. Already one of our group has gone back.”
Abu Waleed*, 40, resident of Tikrit
“The fighters came in and the army just seemed to collapse and then there were lots of bombs coming from airplanes. They hit the mosques, a playground where children were playing and a hospital.
“The noise was so bad, we could not sleep and the attacks were random. We had no idea where they would strike next. The children were crying all the time.
“When the militants first arrived they went to the mosque and said on the speaker that they had come to liberate the city, that they were revolutionaries, and they were liberating us from the repression of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki.
“‘We will give you your rights back. We are from the Islamic State. We are here to liberate you from the government’ - that’s what they said.
“It is true life was difficult in Tikrit. All the people are Sunni but the soldiers and police were mostly Shia and they would target us and arrest us for no reason.
“The militants weren’t all from ISIS. Some were from tribes - definitely some were not ISIS. It was all mixed up, different groups. We don’t know who they were or what their relationships were exactly, but we could tell they were all against the government.
“Because the security situation was very bad and there was nothing, no food, no gas, nothing, we decided to leave. It was a real crisis.
“We spoke to a friend by phone this week and he said his whole family had been killed when they crossed between two lines and were caught in the middle.
“We left everything behind. We just got in the car and drove. We had to leave. They were attacking civilians and bombs were falling on houses around us.
“But now that we are here, we have nothing. Look what we are living in! And even though it is not safe, I think we will have to go back as we cannot stay here in these conditions for much longer.
“Our residency pass lasts for two weeks. We are not sure what we will do after that. Someone has said we have to go back to the checkpoint to renew it, but we are not sure.”
*not a real name