“We were starving for one month, just feeding the children water and flour, and sometimes we could improve the diet with a bit of tomato paste.
It was either stay and die, or flee and risk death. Hunger was the main reason for us to leave,” said Adil, 34, describing his family’s recent escape from west Mosul.
He and his wife Sundus fled their home in the Tal al Ruman neighbourhood of Iraq’s second largest city four nights ago, together with their six children.
Leaving in the dead of night and in torrential rain, the parents carried their youngest children and walked for more than an hour to reach the Iraqi Security Forces and safety.
“We chose to leave at 1 a.m. because that’s when the fighters take rest; the guard patrol is the slackest. When we were leaving we heard shouting and shooting. I heard some families were caught, but I never looked back,” he said.
“If we stayed, we would have starved to death or been killed by mortars.”
After reaching safety, the family was taken to the Hasansham U3 camp 40 kilometres east of Mosul, run by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Here they were given a tent, mattresses and blankets, and sat down to their first proper meal in months.
“When we got here, the children were so overjoyed by the abundance of food. I even had to tell my young son: ‘slow down; you will get stomach pains,’” Adil said.
“Last night, we cooked as a family for the first time. We even ate canned meat; the first time we have had meat in over six months.”
Currently there are 211,572 Iraqis displaced by the fighting in Mosul, with over 50,000 added since the beginning of the latest operations in west Mosul, launched on February 19.
The newest arrivals are in a desperate condition, visibly traumatized, hungry and dehydrated.
Many arrived without shoes and wearing soaking clothes, having walked long distances to reach safety at government checkpoints.
More than 195,000 displaced Iraqis are currently sheltering in 21 camps built by UN agencies and the government around Mosul.
But with most existing camps at or near full capacity, UNHCR is working to open new camps to cope with the spike in displacement triggered by the latest military offensive.
“When we got here, the children were so overjoyed by the abundance of food.”
UNHCR’s newly-opened Chamakor camp, east of Mosul, received its first 200 residents on Monday. More arrivals are expected Tuesday and through the week. It is ready to receive immediately 6,600 people.
UNHCR is building two additional camps near Mosul (Hasansham U2 to the east, and Hammam Al-Alil 2 to the south) with capacity for another 39,000.
Shihab, 39, a former Mosul municipality gardener also from Tal al Ruman, arrived in Hasansham on Sunday, and described how he and his family of six had to wade across a water-filled canyon at nighttime to evade armed groups and reach safety.
His four children lost their shoes in the escape and arrived at the camp barefooted.
“We left as a group. We thought it would be harder for anyone to stop us going, to control us,” he said.
“It was a big gamble. But if we stayed, we would have starved to death or been killed by mortars. If we left we could be killed. But in the end, the lack of food forced us to leave.”
By Caroline Gluck