As a military offensive to retake Iraq’s second city Mosul gathers momentum, UNHCR prepares to assist hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.
DEBAGA, Iraq – Under cover of darkness, 14-year-old Ali slipped out of his village near Mosul with his family and neighbours, in a life or death bid to seek safety.
While they split up into two different groups and walked in single file to avoid detection, they came under attack and the teenager witnessed a neighbour shot dead. Out of the total group of 23 trying to escape, only five came out alive.
“I especially miss my mother. I want to see her every day. She always called me the brave boy, the strong child,” says Ali, who says the rest of his family were captured and, he believes, killed. He was later told his family home was destroyed.
The teenager is among thousands of Iraqis who are currently fleeing Iraq’s bustling second city, Mosul, and its surrounding areas as an offensive by the Iraqi Government forces to retake the city builds.
UNHCR estimates that more than 1 million people could become displaced as Iraqi forces seek to retake Mosul.
At least 150,000 people have already fled Shirqat and Al Qayyarah, near Mosul, in recent weeks, and UNHCR estimates that more than 1 million people could become displaced as the operation pursues its goal of retaking the city.
As the number of men, women and children fleeing their homes continues to grow by the day, the UN Refugee Agency is drawing up contingency plans to reach and provide protection and humanitarian aid to those most in need.
In the past five months, the number of displaced Iraqis like Ali sheltering at Debaga camp – in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) – has swollen ten-fold to more than 36,000 people. They stay in different tented sites, with new arrivals every day, outnumbering the local town’s small population of around 2,000.
“I feel safer here,” says Ali, who watches volleyball with other displaced boys at the camp, many of them unaccompanied like him. “I have started to make a few friends. But all the time, I just think of my family,” he says.
In total, some 3.3 million people – equivalent to almost 10 per cent of the population of Iraq – have been uprooted by fighting since the start of 2014. Those currently fleeing Mosul and its surrounding areas join around half-a-million people who fled the city in June 2014, after a week of heavy fighting.
Over 300,000 found shelter in the KRI, while others scattered across the country. Many are facing great hardship, sheltering in unfinished buildings, makeshift shelters or mosques. Many are unable to find regular work, skip meals because of the costs, and struggle to pay rent or send their children to school.
In total, some 3.3 million people have been uprooted by fighting in Iraq since the start of 2014.
Among them is Ayman Fakhri*, a father of six from Telafar, near Mosul, who fled with his family two years ago. After moving from place to place, he arrived at the holy city of Najaf in central Iraq, around 160 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad, where he soon fell behind with the rent in temporary accommodation.
“We were facing eviction from where we were staying because I couldn’t afford the rent,” said Fakhri, who has recently found refuge at a new shelter built by UNHCR at Al Najaf camp. “This place gives me peace of mind and we have some privacy now”.
Najaf currently houses 14,600 displaced Iraqi families. It is bracing for another wave of displacement once the battle for Mosul gets underway.
Like other displaced families, Ayman yearns to return home. And like most other families he is praying that time will come sooner, rather than later.
*Name has been changed for protection reasons