Hundreds of civilians fled through the desert today to escape fighting and privation in Mosul, joining thousands of others who left their homes as conditions worsen in the city’s west. Iraqi forces launched a major push on February 19 to recapture the west of the city from the Islamic State jihadist group, retaking the airport and then advancing north.
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Security forces reached the southernmost of Mosul’s five damaged or destroyed bridges across the Tigris River, a step that could allow troops to extend a floating bridge between the city’s east and west sides. But even if Iraqi forces link the recaptured east bank with the west, tough fighting still lies ahead, and civilians will be caught in the middle.
“So far today (Tuesday), we have around 300 displaced people — men and women and children,” Brigadier General Salman Hashem of the Counter-Terrorism Service told AFP. “There are more coming. They’re stopped at a checkpoint when they arrive and separated. The men are searched and then checked against a database,” Hashem said. Those fleeing the city have faced dire conditions.
“They’re coming to us after days without food,” he said. While the men are taken to be checked, the women and children sit on sheets on the dusty ground, and security forces bring them water, food and condensed milk. Eighteen-year-old Baidaa, wearing a ragged black scarf and holding her young daughter, said she and her family had fled early in the morning.
“We left at five o’clock this morning. We started running and then we walked the rest of the way. We had to run because we were afraid of fire from (IS),” Baidaa said. “They trapped us and they didn’t want us to leave,” she said of the jihadists.
Her two children didn’t “understand what’s happening, they just followed us. They were so afraid of the firing from the fighting.” According to the ministry of displacement and migration, at least 16,000 people have been displaced since the battle for west Mosul began — a small fraction of the area’s total population.
“There is serious concern for the 750,000 trapped in the densely populated western sector, with conditions worsening daily, according to reports and testimonies from those who have managed to escape,” Hala Jaber of the International Organisation for Migration said in a statement. Those still in Mosul have to face IS’s strict rule along with a lack of basic goods and the danger from the fighting.
“Women had to cover up, you couldn’t walk in the street without a guardian. The rules were very harsh and food was very expensive — we could only afford to eat rice and bread,” Baidaa said. Fawzia Mohammed, a mother of 16 who also fled today, said she and her family were trapped in their homes with little to eat.