For Abu Ahmed, the arrival of Iraqi forces in his village on the border with Syria has ended a three-year ordeal at the hands of the Islamic State group that might never have been.He was only meant to be visiting when he returned to the tiny settlement of Al-Obeidi in eastern Iraq for his mother’s funeral in September 2014.
But two days later the jihadists swept in, trapping him for years under their brutal rule and far from his home in the capital Baghdad.
That all ended this week when government troops pushing a final offensive against IS in Iraq seized Al-Obeidi as they closed in on the largest remaining jihadist-controlled town of Al-Qaim just to the west.
“Thank God, the Iraqi forces have liberated us,” he told AFP, refusing to give his real name as “the fear” still remains even though the IS fighters might be gone.
After absorbing the village into their self-styled caliphate back in September 2014, the jihadists “behaved badly towards the people,” the man in his 60s says.
In the past few years Iraqi troops have been battling to retake the swathes of territory that IS captured when they stormed through the country in 2014. In brutal fighting Baghdad has ousted IS from one city after another as they systematically dismantled the group’s experiment in statehood with the help of air strikes from a US-led coalition.
Now, all that remains of their territory in Iraq is Al-Qaim and the area around in a pocket of barren desert along the Euphrates river near the border with Syria.
Since launching the final offensive to retake the region last week Iraqi troops backed up by local Sunni fighters have captured “over 30 villages and advanced more than 90 kilometres (55 miles),” commander Qassem al-Mohammedi told AFP.
His men have quickly painted over the IS flag that was daubed across an arch at the entrance to Al-Obeidi.
A little further along buildings show the scars of fighting. A row of shops is now only a pile of rubble.When the fighting started Umm Mohammed thought only of one thing: escaping.
The jihadists “deprived us of everything. There were people who were ill and died in their homes because they refused to let them be moved,” says the woman who also refused to give her full name.
A young girl by her side says she wants to go back to school “now that we are finished with IS”.“Without school we forgot everything that we learnt,” she said.
Behind them women, children and a few men are crammed onto a long line of pickup trucks with the belongings that they managed to pack in a rush. Sheep, some cows and a donkey are gathered nearby.
Most of the men are seated on the earth waiting to be screened by government forces. They will face questioning and background checks as soldiers look to root out any IS fighters.
Several hundred metres (yards) away a sign next to the asphalt road that cuts through the desert points to Al-Qaim 12 kilometres (seven miles) away and Syria further on.
Across the frontier IS is also battling for survival as rival offensives backed by the US and Russia eat into its territory.
The Iraqi troops are now focused on Al-Qaim as they look to “force IS out” of their country, said general Noman al-Zoabi, as he advances through the desert with a convoy of armoured vehicles.