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Mosul's refugees safe from 'Islamic State' but homeless

Anna Lekas Miller Chamakor IDP Camp, Iraq
March 22, 2017

As the fighting between Iraqi forces and the "Islamic State" in western Mosul has intensified, thousands have fled the city. In Iraq, Anna Lekas Miller met Moslawis who recently escaped after enduring years of IS rule.

Children stand in front of a tent at Chamakor camp
Image: DW/A. Lekas Miller

Over the course of one week, Chamakor has gone from an empty plot of land in Iraq's Kurdish region to a thriving IDP camp, giving shelter to thousands who recently escaped the fighting in western Mosul and the surrounding areas. 

"Men, over here," a peshmerga soldier shouts in broken Arabic towards the hundreds of new arrivals, pouring out of a dozen large, black buses. He's dividing the men from the women for security screenings - to ensure they do not have ties to the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) before they are given a spot in the camp, which, with the massive displacement coming out of western Mosul, is quickly reaching capacity. 

Made to wait, several of the women collapse onto their suitcases and bags, visibly exhausted by the journey.

"The way here was fine - but we are not fine, we are tired," Darba Khoder, a mother of nine, and grandmother of more than 40 from the Zuman neighborhood in western Mosul tells DW, while waiting in line.

In the first days of the second half of the Mosul offensive - intended to liberate the western part of the city from IS and drive the insurgent group out of Iraq once and for all - civilians were first advised to stay in their homes and be patient, while the Iraqi Security Forces advanced on the city, pushing out of one neighborhood at a time. However, as the fighting intensified, and IS amplified their resistance, routinely firing mortars, forcefully occupying civilian homes as bases and digging tunnels to coordinate their activities underground, civilians began to flee. 

Read: Iraq's pro-government forces discover mass grave in Mosul

Some fled to eastern Mosul, to stay with relatives in the liberated part of the city. Others walked until they reached points where they could be transferred to IDP camps, like Chamakor, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Mosul, close enough to imagine returning to the city, but far enough from the fighting and the front lines to feel safe. 

Now more than 150,000 civilians have fled western Mosul - and the numbers are increasing by the thousands every day.

Survival under siege

"Life was shit," Khoder continues bitterly, describing the last few weeks of life under IS. "If you were sick, you couldn't even have medicine. What is this life?"

In addition to pounding civilian homes with mortars, IS has kept an estimated 750,000 civilians under siege in western Mosul for the past five months. When the Iraqi Security Forces first began to advance on and gain territory in eastern Mosul, at the end of last year,IS fighters prepared for their incursion into the west by hoarding supplies - from medicine to food and fuel - keeping civilians from accessing basic provisions in order to strengthen their ranks.

Several IDPs from Mosul arrive in Chamakor camp in the back of a pickup truck
Several IDPs from Mosul arrive at Chamakor CampImage: DW/A. Lekas Miller

Under siege, local prices skyrocketed. A packet of bread was 10 euros ($10.80); one kilo of sugar, almost 20, or in some cases, 30 euros. Those who did not join IS often found it difficult to find employment. Affording basic supplies was difficult to begin with; the siege made it worse.

Anyone caught selling food could be punished. Inside IS-controlled territory, this means anything from paying an exorbitant fine to being tortured - or executed.

"We had no milk," Khoder continues, pointing next to her where one of her daughters is resting with three of her grandchildren on a large pile of plastic bags, filled with their belongings. 

"So my daughters fed their children by mixing flour with water."

Many of those waiting in line with her showed evidence of starvation - tired, sunken eyes and skin tightly stretched over gaunt faces. During the final days of IS' complete siege of western Mosul, civilians trapped inside the city, like Khoder and her family, subsisted on stale bread or rotten tomato paste, eating only once a day. Some burned furniture to keep their houses warm and survive the cold, often rainy, winter months for lack of fuel or heating.

Children register for lessons at Chamakor IDP camp
After not being in school for the past three years, children register for lessons at the campImage: DW/A. Lekas Miller

"Sometimes we picked leaves from the trees, just to have something to eat," she continues, describing her life under siege for the past five months.

While leaving Mosul seemed like an obvious decision at the time, as Khoder looks around at the hundreds of people clambering around the administration buildings to receive any rations of humanitarian aid that they can, the reality that she is in a camp - and might be here for a long time - begins to sink in. In theory, she could return to her neighborhood in Mosul once it is liberated. However, the reality is that many homes are destroyed by the clashes - which are only escalating in their ferocity. Even if her home remains intact, IS fighters could booby trap it with IEDs, making it a risk to go back, even if the fighting is over. Regardless of the danger and destruction, basic services - such as water and electricity - might not return for a long time. 

"We have been living under IS for three years, only to end up in a camp," she exclaims, as tears begin streaming down her face. She clutches one of her grandchildren close to her, wiping her eyes. 

"I'm at the end of my years, and now the only place I have to live is a tent."