Displaced Iraqis voice fears for relatives trapped in west of the city, as UNHCR prepares for movement of up to a quarter of a million people.
HASANSHAM, Iraq – When Ahmad’s* family learned yesterday the Iraqi government had launched a military operation focusing on western Mosul, where they remain trapped under the rule of armed groups, they risked their lives by climbing onto the roof of their house to get the mobile reception to call him.
“My family are happy to learn of the offensive, but also very worried,” said Ahmad, 25, speaking from the UNHCR-run Hasansham camp 40 kilometres east of Mosul, where he fled last month. “They’ll be in the middle of the fighting. There’s no way out for them.”
During last night’s phone call, his relatives in the west told Ahmad that members of the extremist group who control west Mosul were walking the streets with loudspeakers, urging local residents to come out and fight with them.
“They are saying ‘if you don’t come out and fight with us, we will rape your women, kill your men and humiliate you’,” he said. Those caught using mobile phones in areas controlled by armed groups could face extreme punishment, even death.
“My family … will be in the middle of the fighting. There’s no way out for them.”
It is predicted that up to 250,000 people could be displaced by the fighting for control of the densely-populated west of the city. Almost 217,000 have fled their homes since the start of the Mosul offensive on October 17, and around 160,000 remain displaced, while the rest have returned to their homes in newly liberated areas in eastern Mosul.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is focusing its efforts on camp construction to cope with any fresh exodus. It currently has eight camps open or completed, another under construction, and plans to start work at a new site (Hamam Al Alil), south of west Mosul. There is also spare capacity for more than 27,000 people in existing camps run or supported by UNHCR to the east of Mosul.
“With the predicted exodus of up to a quarter of a million people, it will be impossible to accommodate such large numbers on existing land. We have identified other land that could be used as camps once frontlines shift,” UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh told a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday (February 21).
Saltmarsh warned that conditions in the densely-populated west of the city are worsening, amid reported shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine. He cautioned that conditions would deteriorate still further if civilians are “not able to flee the fighting.”
Ahmad, who used to run a small tea shop before fleeing the brutality he witnessed living under the control of armed groups, said winning the military offensive would only be the start.
“The treasure that was Mosul is gone,” he said. “If Mosul is liberated – and I’m optimistic it will be – if the city gets the support of the government, things can improve and get better. I hope we can go back and rebuild. As a Moslawi, I want to build my city again.”
Another resident of Hasansham camp, Noor*, fled her home in the Jadidah neighbourhood of west Mosul a month ago with her husband and four children. They paid smugglers to take them across the Tigris River by boat, and stayed with family in the east of the city for 20 days before leaving once again on foot to seek safety.
“We are safe and that’s the most important thing. I don’t know what to think about the future.”
Noor, 35, said they fled the west due to the lack of food, electricity and fuel, as well as the constant aerial bombardments. She is concerned for the safety of her relatives who stayed in the west of the city when she fled.
“I spoke to them two days ago. They told me things are getting more and more expensive. A 50 kilo bag of flour costs 150,000 Iraqi dinar (US$127) when it used to cost about 20,000 dinar (US$17). A kilo of onions used to cost 500 dinar (US$0.40), now it costs 17,000 (US$14),” she said.
“People have started begging for food and families are going hungry. Very few people can afford these prices. They are skipping meals and maybe eat once a day; sometimes bread, sometimes lentils,” Noor added.
“Thank God we are here; we are safe and that’s the most important thing. I don’t know what to think about the future,” she said. “I just pray for peace. I hope this painful period will soon finish. We’ve been through so much.”
* Names changed for protection reasons