Khazer Camp in northern Iraq's desert throbs with horror stories — unthinkable tales of brutality and loss. When I reported there last winter, one older Iraqi woman told me to be sure to leave before dusk fell.
"The camp is dangerous?" I asked.
"No," she said, staring blankly at me. "Because at night, the ghosts of our old lives will come, and no one can stand that heartbreak."
On July 10, Iraq's Prime Minister declared "total victory" in Mosul and congratulated his troops on liberating the city from the so-called Islamic State.
Last October, Iraqi forces launched a U.S.-backed offensive to reclaim Mosul, a once multiethnic cradle of cultures and religions. Back in 2014, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had revealed himself to the world in the ancient city, declaring a "caliphate" that extended to parts of neighboring Syria (there have been recent reports that al-Baghdadi was killed, though they are not confirmed by the Pentagon).
The battle for Mosul has killed thousands of civilians and displaced almost 100,000 people. While the offensive is in its final days, the United Nations says there is no end in sight to the humanitarian crisis. Several Iraqis I've spoken to say there is simply nothing to return to.
At Khazer, 45 miles from Mosul, and other camps, I spoke to dozens of women who had lived under siege for the past two and a half years. Their accounts provide a window into one of the most brutal chapters in modern history.
The first thing sixteen-year-old Ghufran did when she moved to Khazer was paint her nails.
When ISIS took control of her neighborhood, cosmetics were thrown into the trash, along with any colorful clothing. Gone was her favorite pink headscarf lined with purple gems. Out went a pink lip gloss she had used her birthday money to purchase, as well as a floral dress her friend had brought from Europe. She and other women, even little girls, were forced to wear black niqabs, an Islamic face veil that leaves all but a slit for the eyes. They were also forced to wear gloves.
"There was no color anywhere," says Ghufran, sitting in a small tent with her parents and siblings. It's a rainy day, and drops of water come through the top of the tent and run down all our faces. "Even the sun seemed black on most days."