When the Kurds in northern Iraq rushed to defend their homeland against an Islamic State group (ISIS) onslaught in the summer of 2014, they found much of the terrain indefensible. Yet Kurdish independence fighters from the Peshmerga—the group’s name means ‘one who confronts death’—needed to find a way to hold off the regional threat ISIS had become.
The quickest means to provide cover over dusty featureless plains was to bulldoze heaps of dry clay into long mounds. Peshmerga fighters sheltering behind the clay berms then sought material close at hand to build further defenses, raiding razed villages for cinder blocks or other solid materials from buildings flattened by coalition airstrikes. For the typically out-of-shape soldiers, it’s a less arduous task than digging a foxhole, even if a burrow offers better protection from shrapnel. Although shaky, these berms became the first reinforcement on frontlines of the war against ISIS.
As the defenses solidified, the bulldozers were put to work piling up mounds atop the berms to provide vantage points over the terrain. On these hillocks they built temporary fortifications that look like a sprawl of shanty towns. Some of the building materials were still recognizable: chest freezers lugged out of ruined stores and stacked into walls became a regular, if odd, form of protection.
Other scrap metal offered only oblique clues as to its original identity; steel pipes piled with earth to form a roof, sheet iron for walls.
The most feared weapon of ISIS is the suicide truck bomb. Trucks are welded together Mad Max-style in underground ISIS workshops, packed with explosives, plated with armor, and unstoppable by most of the light weapons the Peshmerga carry. The surest way to stop these fearsome death wagons is a deep trench, and this is what the Peshmerga are now adding to their defenses.
“All the time we’re making the lines stronger,” says Osman Abdullah Kareem, a 47-year-old lieutenant colonel with Peshmerga, standing inside a poured concrete bunker on the Maktab Khalid checkpoint south of Kirkuk. “Since fighting ISIS we’ve learned their tactics, that’s why we’re building this trench.” He looks out at the 5-meter-wide trench that runs hundreds of kilometers from Jalula near the Iranian border to past his position.
Today, the Kurdish Peshmerga patrol over 1,000 kilometers of frontline like this across northern Iraq. Beyond building defenses, many observers now see them as staking out the borders of a future Kurdish state. It’s not a border ruled in ink across a map during a colonial conference in Europe, or formalized by the signing of a treaty. It’s etched in the earth and punctuated with the detritus of war.