An estimated 100,000 civilians are effectively being held as human shields by ISIS fighters in West Mosul, where they are living in conditions of “penury and panic” without food, water or fuel, UNHCR’s representative in Iraq said on Friday.
The battle to capture Mosul, Iraq’s second city, began nine months ago, and has since displaced 862,000 men, women and children from their homes. As Iraqi and coalition forces battle for the last neighbourhoods under militant control in West Mosul, they are meeting fierce resistance from ISIS fighters, Bruno Geddo told a news briefing in Geneva.
“The civilian population is being moved by fighters with them to be used as human shields, and … ISIS snipers continue to aim at people trying to flee,” Geddo told reporters at the Palais des Nations. “They are risking their lives if they stay and if they flee.”
Civilians trapped in the city have hardly any food, water, electricity or fuel left, and are living in a growing state of “penury and panic … because they are surrounded by fighting on every side”, he added. Geddo said those who attempted to leave the city were being shot by snipers deliberately aiming at people trying to flee.
With the bloody battle entering its endgame in the labyrinthine streets of the old city, there was a greater risk of civilian casualties “because of the nature of the urban environment and the fierce resistance put up by ISIS”, he said. “Fighting will have to be done on foot, hand by hand, house to house, so … the risk for civilians and their property will be even higher.”
Giving a sense of the dangers faced by fleeing residents, Geddo said he had spoken to families who reported coming under sniper fire as they tried to slip out of the city at night, through the streets or by boat on the Tigris River.
Another displaced resident complained of sickness after being reduced to drinking contaminated water for 10 days. Geddo said about 667,000 people had been displaced from Mosul, of whom 635,000 were from West Mosul.
To meet the immediate needs of the displaced, the UN Refugee Agency has built 13 camps so far in the area in northern Iraq, and has assisted more than half a million people. Of these, 371,000 are being aided in camps, where they receive tents, mattresses, blankets, buckets and kitchen utensils.
About 144,000 were assisted out of camps, living either with friends or families in east Mosul, or in abandoned buildings. About 195,000 had returned mostly to East Mosul. Many are living in precarious conditions, particularly those in unfinished or abandoned buildings, Geddo said.
UNHCR gives them wood and other materials to seal off unfinished buildings. The UN Refugee Agency is working to reunite families separated in flight and is helping displaced people to replace identity documents they have lost.
A mobile unit working with Iraqi authorities has so far replaced 2,000 missing documents. In addition, Geddo said UNHCR is providing psychological aid to help the displaced. “People coming out of west Mosul are deeply traumatized,” he said “They have seen unspeakable things.”
To meet the critical needs of vulnerable children, women and men displaced by fighting in Mosul, and of those returning to their war-damaged homes, UNHCR said this month it urgently needed US$126 million in funding up to the end of the year.