Children are dying of thirst or being killed by stepping on makeshift landmines as families desperately try to escape fresh fighting on the road to Mosul, according to Save the Children field staff.
Aid workers at a reception centre in Hayakal, south of the town of Hawija, said they saw a baby arrive minutes away from death due to acute dehydration.
Other children were arriving barefoot - after a gruelling 36-hour trek to safety through territory laced with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) planted by the Islamic State group.
In recent days scores of young children have run out of water and died along perilous mountain paths, or have been killed after stepping on the improvised landmines, families told field staff.
One family-of-five, now reduced to three, said they lost two children to hidden explosives. They were unable to retrieve the bodies for fear of further landmines in the area. Thousands have so far abandoned areas around Hawija as Iraqi and coalition forces fight to clear IS-held territory on the route to Mosul.
Save the Children expects 90,000 to flee Hawija in the coming days as the offensive escalates. Aram Shakaram, Save the Children’s Deputy Country Director in Iraq, said:
“Children are arriving from Hawija on the verge of death. Food in the area is running out and they are hungry, thirsty and absolutely exhausted, having walked barefoot through mountains full of landmines and IS patrols.Our team heard of a woman and her 17-year-old nephew who collapsed and died just a few kilometres away from help.”
When Save the Children arrived in Hayakal, families who had made it to safety were being forced to wait for hours on the ground in the searing heat, with little access to food or water. Save the Children is now providing safe water and supplies for new arrivals, although insecurity and a lack of funds continues to seriously hamper the humanitarian response.
A United Nations appeal for Mosul is currently less than half funded. “This is just the start and we fear it is going to get much worse. The conditions for people fleeing Hawija are an early warning sign of what will happen when far greater numbers are flee Mosul itself," Shakaram added.
“Participants in the military operation must ensure that families have safe routes to escape active areas of conflict and get food, water and shelter. At the moment families are forced to risk their lives whether they stay or flee.”
Up to one million people are expected to flee Mosul when Iraqi and coalition forces launch a final push for the city. The UN estimates 700,000 will be in desperate need of emergency aid in what is expected to be Iraq’s largest humanitarian crisis for years.