It is a strange sort of paradise, a dusty police station in northern Iraq. But that is what it is to these eight families, crammed in here on the hard, tiled floor. Babies are crying and young children are sleeping where they collapsed from exhaustion. They walked 100 kilometres and scaled a mountain last night to escape territory held by the Islamic State group. Many did it barefoot, including a five-year-old. But they survived.
“I have come from jail to paradise,” one mother says to me, surrounded by her five children. “I am finally home.” They are, the parents tell me, lucky. They show me graphic images of families who did not make it. On cell phones are the pictures of children who dodged IS snipers and checkpoints only to step on landmines sown in the fields and mountain paths.
Others have collapsed and died on the journey after running out of water. One woman says she paid out thousands of dollars to smugglers — only to be pointed in the vague direction of freedom and abandoned with her family to stumble down deadly routes in the dark. As the Iraqi army carves out a path to the country’s second city of Mosul, I am hearing stories like these every day.
Families are growing increasingly desperate to flee with their children before the final assault, and are ready to risk capture and execution by IS fighters in the attempt. “I tried escaping on four separate occasions,” one woman says. “But each time I was caught and sent back, and my husband was brutally beaten.” We have already seen at least 150,000 people flee their homes in recent weeks, and more on the move every day.
When the final push for Mosul comes — expected any day now — the U.N. and aid agencies like us on the ground are expecting an exodus of a million, maybe more. What Save the Children is witnessing now in areas recently captured from IS by the Iraqi army suggests they will need everything — water, food, shelter and psychological first aid. “We have nothing but our clothes!” one man shouted out to us when we arrived with help.
The only memories some young children have is of a long and brutal two years of IS rule. Families told us they had resorted to desperate tactics to feed themselves under IS rule, some even cooking grass to eat. Every family I meet has their own harrowing tale. As the offensive fast approaches, Save the Children is gearing up its response plans to cope with the incredible level of need we expect to flood out from the city.
By our estimates there are 600,000 children trapped inside right now. Within 12-72 hours from the call to deploy we aim to get emergency supplies to those that need them, and to provide proper care for vulnerable children travelling alone, reuniting them with their families where we can. But across the board there is a shortage of funding.
The UN has raised less than half of the money it needs for what is likely to be the biggest humanitarian crisis for many years. We need more help. In the violence of this assault, children must be kept safe while they are fleeing — and protected if they make it out alive.
Mike McCusker is Save the Children’s Field Manager in Tikrit