SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – Hussein Khalaf, a policeman in the Iraqi town of Amerli, holds up a bunch of grapes after the end of a long jihadist seige, saying with a smile they are the first he has seen in months.
Like thousands of others in this Shia Turkmen-majority town north of Baghdad, Khalaf was trapped by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group until Iraqi forces and allied militiamen broke through on Sunday.
As much-needed aid arrives, residents are telling harrowing stories of living without even the most basic supplies and in constant fear for their lives.
“All the roads were blocked, we were besieged by terrorists,” says Amerli resident Nureddin Yunis, standing near a truck where fighters are handing down battered metal canisters of gas for cooking.
Fighters also distribute large blocks of ice to a clamouring crowd of people, while others have handed out bags of food, cooking oil and canned tomatoes.
People bringing assistance are greeted with ululations and cheers as they drive through the town, while some residents wave flags bearing images of Imam Ali, one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam.
Resident Burhan Amerli says local dates and bread helped him make it through the siege, when other food was lacking.
“Thank God we managed to survive,” he says.
– Water, electricity cut off –
Amerli was besieged when IS-led militants launched a major offensive in June, overrunning chunks of five Iraqi provinces and sweeping security forces aside, though they have now begun to claw back some ground.
Mohammed al-Bayati, the official responsible for the Amerli area, says there were daily clashes during the siege.
The jihadists blocked one water pipe to the town and polluted another with crude oil, while also cutting off electricity and preventing the entry of food.
Aid was brought in by helicopter and air-dropped during the siege, but it was not enough to meet the needs of increasingly desperate residents.
Along with the deprivation, residents had to contend with the knowledge the jihadists would likely show no quarter if they entered the town.
The extremists consider their Shia faith heresy and resistance has drawn harsh retribution elsewhere.
The UN’s Iraq envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, warned that residents faced a “massacre” if the town was overrun.
That threat has at last been pushed back and aid is flowing in, with the UN delivering 45 metric tonnes of supplies and saying more shipments will follow.
But the breaking of the siege came too late for some.
Umm Ahmed’s husband and 10-year-old son were killed by a mortar round before it was lifted, leaving her to raise three daughters, the oldest of whom is eight.
There was “no food and no water to drink, and the children and the elderly were dying,” says Umm Ahmed, wearing a black abaya robe.
“The government was very late for us,” she says, adding that she asked God to “just end this suffering”.