Iraqis flee western Mosul in droves as battle rages on

As the battle for Iraq’s second-largest city and the Islamic State group’s last urban bastion enters its sixth month, more than 60,000 Mosul residents have managed to escape their embattled neighborhoods in the past two weeks. Stars and Stripes reporter Chad Garland took part of their journey with them and talked to the men and women fleeing the war.
Chad Garland/Stars and Stripes

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq — Civilians have been streaming out of western Mosul districts, some with just the clothes on their backs. Others carried suitcases, shopping bags or trashcan liners full of possessions. Some pushed carts ahead of them or pull their livestock behind them.

As the battle for Iraq’s second-largest city and the Islamic State group’s last urban bastion enters its sixth month, more than 60,000 Mosul residents have managed to escape their embattled neighborhoods in the past two weeks.

Mothers and fathers carried sick children, and family members pushed the elderly in wheel chairs. Others walked for hours after Iraqi forces recaptured their neighborhoods — some said the journey took days because they stopped on the way to shelter for several nights.

Despite bomb blasts, repeated bursts of rapid gunfire and helicopter gunships strafing and rocketing targets in the city, civilians have trudged to areas where government troops load them onto vans, buses and trucks to take them to screening areas.

In September, the United Nations had estimated that as many as 1 million civilians could flee as government forces advance to retake the entire city from the militants, but so far the numbers have been more modest. A trickle that began in October, however, has built considerable momentum since mid-February, when the security forces began an offensive to take Mosul’s western half.

Some 250,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes since the operation to liberate Mosul began in mid-October, according to the International Organization for Migration. Most of them are living in sprawling camps or other emergency sites and relief workers are readying new camps to house even more.

Last week, hundreds of Iraqis gathered outside a displacement camp south of Mosul. Some had waited hours or days for tents, they said. Others were waiting to be screened so they could go further south of the city to live with family or in other arrangements.

On Sunday, an additional 6,000 plots, each of which can support six displaced people, had been made available for newly arrived people from western Mosul, said Iyad Nasr, a United Nations spokesman in Iraq.

More than one-third of the displaced have fled since the campaign for the half of the city west of the Tigris River began a month ago. Some who fled the combat in now liberated eastern half of the city have begun returning to their homes, despite a lack of drinking water and electricity.

The militants are using the as many as 600,000 civilians who remain in the city as human shields, say those who have managed to flee. The jihadis are fighting from within civilian homes, then fleeing, but not before drawing fire from Iraqi forces and coalition aircraft supporting them.

U.S. soldiers at Qayara West Airfield on Friday said they’ve personally seen Islamic State fighters using civilians for cover, but that coalition forces use extreme care to avoid civilian casualties.

Life for civilians remaining in the city is hard with no water and very little food, said a man fleeing the Mansour neighborhood last week who gave his name as Makhmoud.

The fighters who remain in Mosul are likely preparing to resist to the end in the city where their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the group’s so-called caliphate in the summer of 2014. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said those still in city’s western districts are trapped and will probably die there.

Mohammed Akhmed, who fled his neighborhood in Wadi Hajar with his wife and five children last week, said he was nearly killed when the Islamic State began murdering government workers, but he hid from them.

But not all Mosul residents are fleeing. Fallah Hussein was staying in his neighborhood north of the Mosul Airport, which was freed by the Iraqi Federal Police last week.

“We were like dead, and we just came back to life,” he said. He said he had been a government worker, too. “Don’t tell [Islamic State],” he said, drawing a finger across his throat.

For some families in this neighborhood, leaving carries its own risks. Some of Hussein’s neighbors said they were afraid to leave their homes for fear that they would be looted or destroyed. They had drinking water, some said, and others walked past carrying food the police units had given them. Down the street a few ran generators for electricity.

Holding his 2-year-old son in his arms, Hussein said he feared for his adult son, who fled before the government offensive began. The 18-year-old called once when he got out of the city, saying he was planning on joining a militia to fight the Islamic State, but he hasn’t been heard from since.

Twitter: @chadgarland

Iraqis fleeing violence in Mosul gather at a mosque on the north end of the city's airport on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Many took what they could carry, while some used push carts to bring their possessions out of the city to a point where they were being loaded onto trucks to be taken for processing and eventually to a displacement camp.

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