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Residents stick it out in Mosul

Florian Neuhof Mosul
November 25, 2016

Caught up in the fierce fighting between the so-called "Islamic State" and Iraqi government troops, many Mosul residents have opted to stay in the city instead of leaving. The conditions are grim, reports Florian Neuhof.

A man walks past a buildign destroyed during clashes between Iraqi forces and 'Islamic State' fighters
Image: REUTERS/G. Tomasevic

In a field hospital in the district of Gogjali on the outskirts of Mosul, medics go about their grim work. Armored Humvees careen up the dirt track that connects the buildings dotted on the sandy expanse, bringing in the casualties from the battle for the city.

Caked in dust, stony-faced soldiers unload the lifeless bodies of two of their comrades. One has been struck down by a headshot, the other by a bullet to the chest. They are put in a body bag and transferred to an ambulance, and the medics focus on a soldier with an injury to his arm.

The field hospital has been operating in Gogjali since elite Iraqi units pushed into Mosul from the east on November 1, engaging the jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in bloody street fighting within the city. Every day casualties come pouring in. An increasing number of them are Mosul residents.

"Today was a good day, we only treated 15 civilians," says Bashir Jaber, the head of the field hospital.

According to Jaber, a bad day constitutes up to 90 civilian victims of war. For many, any help is too late. Jaber estimates that during the first two weeks of the fighting, around 80 residents died in the hospital or were brought in dead. Civilians die from mortar shells fired indiscriminately into liberated areas by IS, from suicide car bombs driven into Iraqi forces, and at the hands of jihadi snipers who target men, women and children escaping the fighting.

A little down the road from the field hospital, an abandoned family home that stands apart from the clusters of houses on the fringes of Gogjali, Bahiyyah is slumped near the wall of a compound. The frail middle-aged women wearing a headscarf has come from the Mosul district of Bakir with her sons Ahmed and Salim in the hope of getting medicine she needs to prevent her arteries from clogging up.

Equipped to deal with battlefield wounds, the hospital is no place for everyday ailments, and the medics had to send Bahiyyah away empty-handed. She is now waiting for a truck to bring her back to Bakir, parts of which are still contested, and where IS mortar shells continue to rain down.

In Bakir and the other neighborhoods that that have been liberated, food is becoming scarce, with few supplies coming in. Electricity has been cut, keeping houses dark at night and rendering water pumps useless. Residents with medical conditions have little chance of receiving the treatment or the medicine they need.

"The medical team told us to go to a camp, but we don't want to leave," says Bahiyyah.

'Why should we leave?'

Like Bahiyyah, many residents prefer to brave the danger of living in a warzone to the camps that have hastily been constructed to cater for those displaced by the fighting in and around Mosul.

Their reluctance is not without reason. Underfunded and overwhelmed by over three million Iraqis that have been displaced by the war, aid agencies are unable to cope with a mass exodus from Mosul, home to over a million people. Little help can be expected from the Iraqi government, which has proven itself inept in handling displacement throughout the course of the conflict.

Civilians push their belongings on a cart along a street in eastern Mosul
Displacment camps would hardly be able to handle a full-scale exodus of Mosul residentsImage: DW/F. Neuhof

Few camps have been built to cater to fleeing Moslawis. According to the UN, almost 70,000 people have been displaced since the start of the operation on October 17, outstripping the current camp capacity of 60,000.

In a street in the neighborhood of Kirkukli in the eastern suburbs of Mosul, the air is heavy with the sound of war. The frontline is close, and the rattle of machine-gun fire and dry thump of explosions carry across the rooftops. Mortar shells come crashing in, kicking up earth and sending plumes of smoke into the sky. Bullets zip overhead.

Iraqi special forces have turned a house in the street into a forward command and control position, and a colonel gives orders over a walkie-talkie to his troops battling IS a few hundred meters away. Black Humvees are parked in front of the building and block off the entrances to the road.

A few doors down, Yasin al Arigi stands at the gate of his brother's house. His own house was destroyed when a suicide car bomb went off close by, forcing him and his family to seek shelter with his brother, and now 16 people share the space in the small property.

Neither the cramped living conditions nor the apocalyptic backdrop have convinced Al Arigi to seek safety outside the city.

"The security forces have come and liberated the area. Why should we leave?" he asks defiantly.

Displacement camp as a last resort

As he speaks, groups of civilians turn the corner of a street leading straight to the fighting. They carry white flags and bags filled with food and clothing. Men push carts laden with household goods and other belongings; one family walks past with a goat on a leash.

All conform to the strict dress code imposed by IS, the men wearing beards and trousers exposing their ankles, the women black abayas and headscarves. Liberated from the jihadists' dark rule, the fear is still ingrained.

Civilians walk towards a position held by elite Iraqi soldiers in eastern Mosul
The Iraqi government has discouraged locals from fleeing MosulImage: DW/F. Neuhof

Some of the families will walk until they reach Gogjali, where they will be ferried to a displacement camp in Kurdish-controlled territory. Others are on their way to areas a little further from the frontline.

Salem Khader sits in a wheelchair pushed by a relative as his family hurry along the road. The 47-year-old lost his wife to a mortar shell two days earlier, but has little time to grieve while dodging death in the hellscape of Mosul. He is on his way to a relative's house and dismissed the idea of leaving the city.

"The camp is a last resort. If it gets really bad, we will go live in Gogjali," says Khader, before continuing his perilous journey.