Dunya was one of an estimated 600 people who arrived in five buses and two trucks at a camp near eastern Mosul Wednesday afternoon. Family members who had arrived days earlier greeted Dunya with tears of relief. "May God take revenge on ISIS," one female relative cried as she kissed each of Dunya's children.
Hours of heavy rain had turned the ground to mud and left the youngest arrivals cold and miserable. Overwhelmed and confused, parents they tried to figure out the entry process at the camp, while simultaneously trying to comfort their crying children, and keep track of their bundled belongings. Despite the bleak surroundings, most were grateful just to be alive, even if it meant trading the comforts of home for a barren tent.
Between 700 and 1,000 people arrive daily from the embattled city of Mosul to the stretch of UN-run refugee camps just 20 kilometers east of the city's outskirts. There the transition begins -- out of the hell of life under fire in Mosul and into a life of limbo as a refugee. First, women and children are separated from the men so that each can undergo security screenings.
Iraqi security officials are wary that ISIS militants may melt into the civilian population pouring out of the city. "It is a natural worry. There are 50,000 people here who all lived under ISIS for three years," camp manager Rizgar Obeid said. "But so far there has been no problem. The security forces have total control of the situation." The families are then separated by gender, before boarding buses where aid workers record the names, ages, and identification numbers of each individual.
After a 30-minute drive, they reach Khazer camp. One by one, families are called upon for registration. Men go first before relief officials assign each family a tent and give them a ration card. The camp provides much needed safety, shelter, food, water and basic health care, but little else. There is no school for the children, no organized activities, just a monotonous expanse of tents, gravel and mud.
Hala fled to the camp six weeks ago with her husband and five children after ISIS began using their home as a sniper position. "We would be sitting at home and the ISIS fighters would be on our rooftop," she said. "We were worried the coalition planes would bomb our home and mistake us for ISIS." The Iraqi military has driven the terror group out of the family's neighborhood of Samah on the eastern edge of the city, but ISIS mortar rounds and rockets still slam into the area.
"It's cold in the tent but we will hang on," Hala said. "We will stay here. It is better than ISIS in Mosul. The most important thing is the safety of my family and children." For others, the bleak existence is taking its toll. When a man showed up with a bag of jackets, a mad scramble ensued. Tens of children descended upon him, screaming and shouting, pushing each other into the mud.
Temperatures have dropped, patience has worn thin, and little can be done to control the raw desperation of the small crowd. Many here arrived with only the clothing on their back, and every extra scrap is worth fighting for.
By Ben Wedeman and Mohamed Tawfeeq