The military action to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State may be entering its final phase. 580,000 people have already fled to safety, but the UN says there are fears for an unknown number of civilians still trapped in appalling conditions as fighting intensifies.
International disaster relief agency ShelterBox and its aid partners have been delivering aid for months now to people fleeing Mosul and surrounding areas, the scene of one of the harshest and most protracted battles in the Middle East.
This has included thousands of ShelterKits that are highly portable and contain the means to construct rudimentary shelters or repair damaged buildings. ShelterBox aid has been used to improve and extend already overwhelmed displacement camps, as well as helping families on the move.
580,000 residents of Mosul have managed to escape the city since the military operation to recapture it began in October 2017. The offensive was expected to cause a flood of escapees, but in reality it has been gradual over the intervening months. 320,000 have taken refuge in camps and reception centres, the rest staying with relatives or friends.
The UN’s humanitarian relief co-ordinator Lise Grande says that many of those who have fled Mosul have witnessed the deaths of relatives, friends and neighbours, their children showing severe signs of trauma.
But her greatest concern now is for those left behind in Mosul, living daily with food, water and medicine shortages, and under the control of a desperate regime. Lise Grande says, ‘Civilians are going to be at the most extreme risk they have been during the entire campaign. We know that IS is directly targeting families as they try to escape, we know that there are very limited stocks of food and medicines, we know that there are severe shortages of water and electricity.’
International emergency shelter agency ShelterBox has been working with partner organizations since last October importing, storing and distributing aid for those escaping Mosul. Sam Hewett, ShelterBox Operations Co-ordinator, is in the area now to oversee the charity’s continuing aid program across Iraq and in the Syrian region.
Sam says, ‘We have to be prepared for an unknown number of families from Mosul needing assistance at any point in the coming weeks. They may be weak from hunger and thirst, and will almost certainly be distressed by what they have seen and experienced.’
We have been in the region with our partners helping thousands of such people over recent months, and if the numbers accelerate we will simply have to step up our response as much as possible. We cannot let these people down.
In March, Sam and colleagues were at Scorpion Junction, a former gas depot just a few kilometres from Mosul airport, where up to 14,000 people a day pass through a security screening site. At another site near Salamayah, ShelterBox aid was distributed, including blankets and stoves. Here people were given food and aid items before being sent on by bus to camps or to host families.
The ShelterBox team talked to many of the families lining up in the hot sun at Salamiyah. One woman was visibly upset at her memories of Mosul. ‘When the city was taken my husband was murdered by Daesh (IS). They took him away and cut him many times. He was then thrown into the landfill. No burial.’
His brutal murder had taken place over two years ago, and since then the family had to live under the rule of the people that killed her husband. They escaped as soon as they could, crossing the front line. They were screened before taking buses south, choosing not to go into the displacement camps as they had family connections in a nearby village. This support structure is vital now this family has lost their father and their home.
ShelterBox Operation Team Lead Alice Jefferson asked if the family would ever return to West Mosul. ‘No it is not likely that we will return,’ the woman said. ‘There is nothing left for us in Mosul’. Alice added, ‘As the distribution continued I spoke to a number of other women in the line. A startlingly common theme began to emerge. Husbands, fathers and sons were missing.’
The Iraq government announced the ‘full liberation’ of eastern Mosul in January, but the west of the city with its narrow, winding streets has presented a greater military challenge. All bridges linking the east and west of the city across the Tigris river have been destroyed. It was here, in the most ancient part of the city, that IS proclaimed the creation of a ‘caliphate’ back in July 2014.
It is not known how many civilians remain trapped in West Mosul, but the UN’s Lise Grande says, ‘All of the evidence points to the fact that the civilians who are trapped in these neighbourhoods and districts are in grave danger.’
NOTES TO EDITORS
- We can seek Skype interviews with our team in the region, communications and workload allowing. Please arrange via [email protected] or by phoning 647-352-1930.
- There are now almost 85 million people around the world forced from their homes due to natural disasters or conflict, the greatest number ever before in human history. ShelterBox is an international disaster relief charity, and a world authority on providing innovative, rapid and practical shelter to families in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places and most devastated disaster zones. Since its start in 2000 it’s helped more than one million people worldwide rebuild their lives, and ShelterBox Canada is part of the ShelterBox affiliate operations across Europe, Africa, Americas and Asia. More info at www.shelterboxcanada.org