After his nephew was shot trying to flee the old city of Mosul, Abu Taha was trapped. Under the rule of armed extremists, just to be seen with a packed rucksack was enough to get him killed. Instead, Abu Taha decided to hide in his basement with his nine children and wait for the fighting to end.
Finally, last week, as Iraqi government forces battled their way into his neighbourhood, they were able to make their escape. A day later and the 53-year-old year old was sitting in the reception centre at Hammam al-Alil camp, built by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, south of Mosul, his eyes brimming with tears of relief.
“I cannot describe how happy I am,” he said. “Here everything is really good compared to what we saw in old Mosul. If I start describing the tragedies we’ve lived through, I won’t be able to finish the story today.”
In the week to June 21, some 20,000 Iraqis fled western Mosul. Most, like Abu Taha, escaped intense street fighting in the old city where Iraqi forces are trying to wrest back control of the final pocket in the city held by militants.
Trapped residents daily risk their lives in desperate attempts to cross the frontlines through deadly sniper alleys, where they are deliberately targeted by extremists. Meanwhile, those who remain in the shrinking area of the city under militant control are deliberately exposed to danger by the fighters.
“Civilians are being moved by fighters and used as human shields,” said Bruno Geddo, UNHCR’s representative in Iraq. “The intense fighting now is happening on the ground: street by street, house by house and the risks to civilians are higher than ever,” he said.
For the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in Mosul’s old city, food stocks are low and there is no electricity or clean water, causing sickness and widespread hunger, especially among children and the elderly who are too physically weak to flee.
In Hammam Al Alil’s reception centre, Abu Taha took a tiny bag from his wallet that contained barely a spoonful of powdered sugar. During the siege, he would mix a few specks of sugar with water in order to keep his children alive.
“Now the children are eating and sleeping well, far from any fears,” he said, while gesturing towards his six-year-old daughter, Zahra, who has been deafened, he said, by the bombs and shells falling around their home in Mosul.
“They haven’t stopped eating since we arrived yesterday. They were so hungry,” he said. Abu Taha’s wife Amira, 51, added that they fell sick after drinking dirty water from wells. According to government figures, more than 875,000 people have fled Mosul since the battle for the city began in October 2016, nearly 700,000 from western Mosul alone.
Over 679,000 people remain displaced, the majority sheltering in camps around Mosul. After a rocket struck her home in the Shifa neighbourhood, Maysa Muhammed, 47, escaped through the rubble. “We are good,” she said, speaking from Hammam al-Alil’s reception centre, with her relatives gathered around her.
“We are feeling secure but we are exhausted and we just want to relax.” In Mosul, she said, extremist fighters told her family and others to punch holes through the walls of their houses to allow them to move unseen through the city’s streets.
“If they came and didn’t see the hole, we would be killed or tortured.” She said she wanted to flee earlier but could not. “We knew [the extremists] had killed some families that tried to flee before us.”
By Cathy Otten