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It had already been a long enough trip from Erbil through the harsh and barren desert landscapes occasionally broken with bold green enclaves along rivers before we arrived at the internally displaced persons screening centre/ mustering point administered by the Government of Iraq military in East Mosul. We were there as part of our work with the United Nations, and everyone was wondering when the next wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) would be arriving. It’s not an exact science to liberate west Mosul, given the nature of the fighting, but such continuous monitoring, data updating, and sharing is critical in the efforts to try to provide much needed support and other services to the newly displaced. These extremely vulnerable IDPs have lived under the authoritarian Daesh since the summer of 2014 when Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, was taken by the militants as they swept across much of the region. Weeks later from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque, the head of this group proclaimed the formation of a self-styled caliphate.
Since October 2016 when the battle to liberate Mosul began, at least 800,000 have safely fled. While Mosul east of the Tigris River and many districts west of the river have been freed, there is widespread fear of the fate of the estimated 180,000 civilians still trapped in west Mosul. A sense of normalcy is struggling to return to east Mosul as shops are gradually reopening and some reconstruction is evident in the shadows of block after block of buildings flattened by artillery and airstrikes. The telltale signs of street-to-street and house-to-house fighting are apparent and the ground regularly shakes with the thump-thump of artillery being lobbed into the narrow alleys and streets of west Mosul’s Old City, while jets screech across the sky attacking Daesh positions.
After talks with the authorities providing services at the camp, an Iraqi army truck pulled up and dislodged a group of IDPs. These innocent civilians, mostly women and children, looked around in stunned horror and shuffled about in absolute silence; even the children were frighteningly quiet and inanimate. In the searing Mosul heat, none of them showed any signs of perspiration as they were so dehydrated. It was hard to imagine how they were even standing up and moving. They knew that they were the fortunate ones, as they were escaping a city of terror; a place with little food, clean water, medicine or safety. The grime on some of them was a testament to the siege. They had, after all, struggled through constant fear and an inability to move. They came in with little more than the clothes on their backs, though a very occasional few had a sturdy homemade bag that could be slung over their shoulder as they fled. They slowly told their heart-breaking stories to us.
The monsters, the monsters, you don’t know what they did to us…
Many had lost loved ones throughout the occupation and liberation efforts, and a number had lost some during their efforts to escape. Barriers of concrete blocks and other rubble, trenches, Daesh checkpoints and Daesh snipers made it difficult at best, if not impossible to escape. If this wasn’t enough, alleyways and streets had been lined with corrugated metal, so those trying to sneak out under the cover of darkness would be heard and if not killed outright, executed the next day as yet another grim warning to others. Daesh had been rounding people up and using them as human shields, while some Daesh members were reportedly trying to escape as IDPs with threats of reprisals to still-trapped family members should anyone give them away to the authorities. The authorities carefully checked all who arrived for weapons and logged their personal information against databases of known Daesh members and sympathisers.
After the IDPs felt a bit more settled, we helped them open up food parcels they had been given upon arrival. Though so clearly hungry and excited by seeing food, in an unexpected show of supreme generosity, some of the little boys who had so far remained mute began to talk to me as they handed me dry biscuits in between stuffing their mouths. I gamely ate one but had to turn away as I broke down in tears at the kindness of these people; people who had been robbed of everything but their own sense of humanity, even after escaping such an unwelcomed and brutal occupation.
What’s the future for them?
For days afterwards, I wondered what lay ahead for them. Was it another transit processing camp, such as the one I had visited the day before, or a more ‘permanent’ camp where they may try to meet up with family and friends? Perhaps it would be a refuge with old contacts outside of a camp? For now they were safe, but what further miseries awaited them? In spite of the best efforts being made, I knew the thirteen official camps built in the Mosul area were at best quite uncomfortable. Outside the camps, freedom of movement is challenging because there are not only thousands of Iraqi security forces and battle-hardened Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, but countless sectarian tribesmen and militiamen all assisted to varying degrees by the US-led coalition warplanes and military advisers. On top of this, the official ruling body of northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, scheduled a binding referendum for independence from the rest of Iraq to be held on 25 September 2017.
We can’t forget these people as we have done in the past on too many occasions to count. We know that many of these survivors are showing severe signs of trauma having witnessed the deaths of relatives, neighbours, and friends. Children are showing tell-tale signs of fear of separating from family members or being near strange men, excessive crying, bed-wetting and mutism. Organisations such as the one I work for have been active in providing food distributions and water trucking in both east and west Mosul since the start of the liberation struggle. They now provide humanitarian protection services to the IDPs, working to reconstruct basic water and sanitation facilities in homes and schools. However, we need the international community to come together and ensure that such emergency relief and response interventions are linked into meaningful rehabilitation for the longer-term, and for true sustainable development. The region is resource rich in ways that go beyond petroleum, and its time we honestly and sincerely provided a helping hand to its people in ways that we too would wish to be helped.
*This article was written before the last push to free west Mosul took place, read more about this here