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Inside Sinjar: "It Is Liberated, But How Can We Come Back?"

Seemingly every block in the Iraqi town has been reduced to rubble and metal scraps.

Posted on November 13, 2015, at 10:39 a.m. ET

Ayman Oghanna for BuzzFeed News

A man climbs a billboard in Sinjar to raise the flag of the PKK and its affiliates after taking the city back from ISIS.

SINJAR, Iraq — The young soldier paused to take a somber selfie on the battered street. Kurdish forces had just cleared ISIS from the town of Sinjar, but unlike some of his comrades who sent bursts of gunfire into the air, 20-year-old Azhar Khalaf Shamo wasn't celebrating. He was from this town, and he knew this street — he stood in front of what had been a family-run store. But now the entire block, like seemingly every block in Sinjar, was reduced to rubble and metal scraps. "It's totally destroyed," he said. "No place looks like before. Yes, it is liberated. But how can we come back?"

Sinjar became famous as the site of ISIS's worst atrocities — after overrunning the region in August 2014, the group massacred thousands of members of the Yazidi religious sect that calls it home. President Obama cited the need to protect them when announcing the start of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.

Ayman Oghanna for BuzzFeed News

Azhar Khalaf Shamo's seven siblings were killed by ISIS.

Yet as ethnic Kurdish forces, backed by the strikes, rolled triumphantly back into the city on Friday, Shamo seemed to be wondering what was left to save. He had lost seven siblings to ISIS's rampage; more than 2,500 Yazidis are still believed to remain under ISIS control as slaves.

Shamo said childhood memories still lingered as he walked through the broken streets; so did the shock and horror. He stopped at the home of a man he said had taken Yazidi women prisoner the day ISIS took the town: "This was our neighbor."

Kurdish politicians were quick to trumpet the Sinjar victory on Friday, the win giving their U.S.-backed fight against ISIS a boost in stature and morale. But Shamo seemed uncertain as he surveyed his town. "I just came here to ease some of my pain," he said. "I don't know what to do next."

The ruin in Sinjar — charred and twisted homes, telephone poles snapped in half — was all that remained when Kurdish peshmerga forces poured into the town en masse on Friday as part of a highly publicized offensive. More than a year of bitter fighting and scores of U.S.-led airstrikes had done the bulk of the work to wear ISIS down beforehand; it seemed as if what jihadis remained had left the city before the large-scale ground assault.

While Sinjar thundered on Thursday with the sound of airstrikes, gunfire, and ISIS car bombs, the only shots were celebratory by early Friday afternoon, and it was hard to find a corpse on the streets. "The operation was easy," said Capt. Ramazan Saamo as he stood along a battered street. He had been looking down on the fighting from a nearby hilltop post just a day before. "I don't think there was much resistance."

Ayman Oghanna for BuzzFeed News
Ayman Oghanna for BuzzFeed News

Scenes in the town of Sinjar after Kurdish forces entered on Friday.

What remained of the militants was the threat of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, and soldiers were instructed to keep to the middle of the street for fear of what lied in the jumbled roadside. The way was cluttered with tangles of wires. "Don't touch them, don't pull them," a soldier shouted to his colleagues. Troops were ordered to cross some stretches of road in groups of four, "In case an IED goes off, to make sure it doesn't kill too many people," one of the soldiers explained.

Also lingering was the question of who deserved credit for the operation — and the political tensions it underlined. While the peshmerga, the official military force of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, has been the group to launch this week's media-savvy operation and declare victory, other Kurdish groups also played a major role in the fight. The Turkish insurgent group the PKK and its sister group in Syria, the YPG, fought intensively on the front lines. "We have been fighting here for more than a year," said a YPG fighter near his base in the town. "But the [peshmerga] want all the credit."

For other soldiers who helped to win back the town, the sense of victory was tempered by the suffering that remained. "For us, Sinjar is not yet liberated," said one who gave only his first name, Furat. "There are still thousands of Yazidis in ISIS hands."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.