MOSUL, Iraq — Mahmoud Hamid and his wife were government employees living a comfortable life in a diverse and cosmopolitan city when ISIS stormed into Mosul in June 2014. Now, more than two years later, they were fleeing their war-torn neighborhood with their two young sons and a single suitcase.
Walking in a daze with a long procession of Iraqi families last week, down a street that Iraqi soldiers had recently secured, the family had fled about a mile by foot after ISIS mortar bombs began to hit around their home. The two boys appeared shell-shocked. “They’re terrified. Psychologically they’re not doing well,” Hamid said. “There are no mortars falling here, right?”
Continuing down the street, the family arrived at a spot where Iraqi soldiers had been shepherding civilians into flatbed trucks bound for newly erected camps. “We are going into the unknown,” Hamid said, and then he led his family into the crowd.
The wave of displaced civilians — which continued night and day in the suburb of Gogjali last week — was just the start of an expected civilian exodus from the city.
A five-day embed with Iraqi special forces last week revealed a constant wave of displaced residents who fled the fighting as it slowly moved forward, providing a glimpse into the civilian suffering that lies ahead. The wounded were sometimes carried with the crowds — a woman hit with a mortar round laid unconscious on a hand cart, and a 12-year-old boy was treated at a makeshift clinic for a shrapnel wound to his chest — as gunfire, mortar rounds, vehicle bombs and airstrikes rocked their neighborhoods. “The attacks are all over our houses,” one man said, peering over the side of a flatbed truck as it prepared to leave for the camps.
Hamid struggled to describe the changes that had overtaken his city — Iraq’s second-largest, once known for things like its university, ancient ruins, and distinctive cuisine. “Whatever I tell you about what happened in Mosul is not enough,” he said, taking a pack of cigarettes from some soldiers and requesting a light. “Because it’s been two years. There were no journalists in the city, no communication to the outside world.”
He relayed flashes of the horror that the city’s residents had endured: families killed by the militants, civilians being taken as human shields. He feared that the damage to the city would be permanent, leaving him unsure of whether the family would be able to return. “A historic city like Mosul is being destroyed. No universities. No schools. No hospitals,” he said. “We are asking the world just to rebuild it.”
One month into the US-backed offensive for Mosul, Iraqi forces have advanced only into its eastern edge. The Iraqi government estimates that more than 1 million civilians remain in the sprawling city. Most have yet to be affected by the fighting — and have yet to get the chance, as ISIS loses its grip on their areas, to escape.
The UN warned this summer that up to 1 million civilians could be driven from their homes by the fighting in Mosul and on its outskirts, adding to a population of 3.2 million displaced people in the country before the offensive began last month. More than 54,000 people have been displaced during the offensive so far, according to the UN.
In phone interviews from Baghdad, two US officials overseeing relief efforts for Mosul said work to address the civilian fallout from the battle has been underway for months in anticipation of what one called “the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world this year and one of the biggest in many, many years.”
“It is still early,” he said. “They’ve only taken some neighborhoods, and we still have a ways to go.”
Camps were built before the offensive began, the officials said, both speaking on condition of anonymity, and more are under construction. Supplies have been stockpiled, and the US alone contributed $513 million toward the humanitarian situation in the country in the recently concluded fiscal year. “At least we’re a bit prepared,” the second official said. “And hopefully we’re able to take care of these people. They’ve suffered enough under ISIS.”
He likened Mosul to a “hostage situation,” noting that ISIS often prevents civilians from leaving. Once the fighting loosens the grip of the militants on a particular area, residents take their chances to escape. “People are being kept there against their will, the vast majority of them, and [they leave] as soon as there’s an opportunity for them to get away,” he said.
Not all residents are leaving, though, and the official added that aid must also reach those who remain — or who return home once ISIS leaves their area. But the dangerous environment for aid workers has complicated that. “ISIS has already shown that they don’t give a crap about anything resembling normal stand of humanity,” the official said. “They don’t recognize the Red Crescent or Red Cross, and an aid worker is just another target for them.”
For the Iraqi military, managing the humanitarian fallout has been one of most difficult tasks in the battle. Commanders on the ground say the effort to avoid civilian casualties has contributed to the slow pace of their advance — and they say they must limit civilian suffering to ensure the Iraqi government will be able to effectively run the city once they win it back.
Abdul Wahab al-Saedi, the top commander in Mosul for the Iraqi special forces who have led the push into the city, said he understood that residents would hold the government and military responsible for the city’s fate. He added that many civilians in the areas gripped by fighting had refused to flee to the camps, complicating the efforts of the soldiers on the ground. “For us and for them, I hope they leave [and return after the fighting],” he said. “But it’s difficult. Because if they go to a camp — that’s not a way of life. We are not used to living with a lot of people crowded in a little tent.”
The involvement of different forces in the offensive also adds to the difficult choices civilians face in Mosul. While al-Saadi’s elite special forces have shown themselves committed to protecting civilian lives, they are only one part of the anti-ISIS coalition on the ground. The country’s Shiite militias — which have faced serious accusations of human rights abuses against civilians in areas freed from ISIS, including torture and massacre — have insisted that they will play a role in retaking the city. And last week, Amnesty International urged investigation into reports that soldiers from Iraq’s federal police force tortured and executed residents of villages south of Mosul over suspected ISIS ties.
In Gogjali last week, even civilians who had fled the fighting deeper inside the city faced the occasional threat of ISIS mortar fire and gunfire. When it erupted nearby, they stopped in apprehension as they fled through the streets, then continued with renewed urgency. In one home along the route, children peered over a stone wall at the smoke rising up from a mortar round that had hit just beyond it.
They faced new uncertainty on their way to the camps. Soldiers said they worried about ISIS infiltrators among the ranks of the civilians, and occasionally they asked men to raise their shirts to show they weren’t wearing suicide vests.
An Iraqi colonel arranging the departures said soldiers would check the names of the people in the crowds at intake centers against a database of people with suspected ISIS ties. He added that people had been fleeing to his area until midnight the night before and all through the day.
As he spoke, some of the people gathered there began clamoring for the next truck to depart, but a soldier told them to wait. The whoosh of a rocket fired by Iraqi forces sounded overhead. “Do you hear that?” he asked. “They are firing artillery. One might land on you or your family.”