Mosul families face gunfire, bombs or starvation

The men are heavily bearded as they flee Islamic State (IS) militants in Mosul, and the women wear black burqas flipped back to reveal sweating faces. It about 40 degrees C (104 F) every day as summer sweeps into Iraq. 

Families from the Zanjili neighborhood run about 500 meters (a third of a mile) between IS and Iraqi front lines, where they take cover from sniper fire before slowly trudging on to find more permanent shelter. A small girl weeps as she arrives at an army base about 200 meters beyond the front lines. 

Militants had shot her grandmother in the chest. More than 800,000 people have fled since the Mosul offensive began in October, and as IS prepares to fight in the Old City, militants are increasingly cruel to families. 

The United Nations counts 231 civilians shot down between May 26 and June 3, but witnesses put the death toll since then far higher. Families continue to stream out of the war zone with tales of starvation, bombings and finally fleeing through gunfire. 

Raqia, the grandmother in her 70s, did not stop running when she was hit. At the base, she allows soldiers to usher her out of the sun and bandage her wounds before she is transported to the nearest field clinic. 

As medics grab a gurney for Raqia at the clinic, she stands up and gingerly walks inside. "My sister and her daughter left the house this morning when we saw Iraqi soldiers near us," said Mohammad Mohsen, 24, one of Raqia's sons. 

"They shouted at the soldiers: 'Should we come?' " The soldiers yelled back, "Yes, come!" he said, sitting on a folding chair a few feet from his mother, who is now lying down, surrounded by medics. The family's bags were already packed. 

Under the bridge 

As an ambulance blares out of Mosul carrying Raqia, most of the families arriving from IS-held neighborhoods gather under a bridge outside the battle zone, and out of the glaring sun. Soldiers and aid workers help them load onto buses or trucks that are heading out of town. 

"We were hostages trapped in our houses," said Faris Yahyia, as he helps his wife onto the back of an open-air army truck. "Houses were collapsing from airstrikes, and there was shooting behind us as we ran." 

Most people carry small bags, stuffed with clothes and any valuables they have left after months under siege. Some, like Yahyia, carry valuable pets, like peacocks. Others carry sick relatives, and a small crowd gathers for the awkward task of hauling an elderly man in a wheelchair onto the truck. 

In this somewhat safe spot near the bridge early this week, a civilian was shot by an IS sniper. "When we arrive in an IS area, it becomes extremely dangerous," said Hamza Hameed, an Iraq soldier stationed under the bridge. "But many people run as soon as they see us." 

Life inside 

"In Old Mosul, there was massive mortar and gunfire," said Omar, 19, as he waited with his family under a large tent for a place in one of the many refugee camps surrounding Mosul. "There was no food, no water, not even a drop. 

"Some families are still alive, trapped under their collapsed houses," he added. "Militants locked other people in basements so they wouldn't run." Early that morning, they finally ran from their IS-controlled neighborhood when they heard Iraqi soldiers were in the area. 

"A neighboring family I knew fled, leaving their 80-year-old grandmother behind," said Ahmed, Omar's father and a former taxi driver. "For the past three months, the only thing we have had to eat was flour and water." 

Lack of food and water have driven many families out of the last few neighborhoods of Mosul still controlled by IS, despite Iraqi forces dropping leaflets that ask people to wait inside for protection against IS. 

Others run because they are in the line of fire, fleeing airstrikes gunfire and mortars. Families say they risked running because they thought they'd die if they stayed. Among those that have stayed, hundreds have been killed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes since the campaign began in October. 

Some estimates say it is actually thousands. "Our neighbors' house was bombed," said Ahmed Mohammad, his arm tiring from holding an IV bag over his emaciated brother, who lies semi-conscious on the pavement, just a half-hour after the brothers fled. "Everyone was screaming and running." 

By Heather Murdock

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