Hundreds of civilians who fled fighting near Islamic State-controlled Mosul last week are stranded without basic humanitarian assistance, underlining the challenges of the largest military operation in Iraq in over a decade. Families have been living for up to six days in abandoned homes and a school building in the village of Baybukh, about 6 km (4 miles) from the frontline at Mosul’s northern border.
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The army is fighting within sight of city neighbourhoods, but advances have been slowed by the presence of civilians who officers say are being used by the militants as human shields.
Four weeks into the campaign to crush Islamic State in Mosul, the city is almost surrounded. But the jihadists’ defences have been breached so far only to the east, where they have battled elite troops for control of up to a dozen districts.
More than 54,000 people have been displaced so far in the campaign and ultimately, 700,000 people are thought likely to need shelter, food, water or medical support.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said on Sunday that tens of thousands of people “lack access to water, food, electricity and basic health services” in areas recaptured by the army in Mosul and surrounding towns and villages.
No humanitarian assistance has reached Baybukh in the past week and the people there have been barred from moving to a government-run camp or a village further from the combat zone.
“There is no food – no breakfast, no lunch, no dinner,” said one man. “People are sleeping on top of each other. Women and children inside and men out in the open.”
The situation has become so desperate that army officers say they have begun distributing rations meant for their soldiers and buying extra supplies out of their own pockets.
But even that is not enough.
Major Emad al-Ani said if he manages to provide food for 10 people, another 10 are lined up right behind them.
“This is a tragedy and it could become a humanitarian disaster,” he said.
As women looked on from the school building’s balconies, men of all ages crowded around a Reuters team visiting the site on Sunday. The men talked over each other in desperate attempts to bring attention to their plight as the sound of mortars rung out from the nearby battlefield.
“We just want to get out of here,” said one man. “We have been sleeping in the dirt for five days.”
“We want the most basic rights. Just take us to a camp,” said another.
Major Ani said the men had been searched for weapons but had not undergone a screening process the government has established to try to keep Islamic State fighters from posing as civilians and slipping through government lines.
Iraqi authorities are responsible for transporting people from mustering sites like the one in Baybukh to a location further away from the frontlines, where humanitarian aid can be more safely distributed, according to the United Nations.
A UN spokesman said on Sunday that the Baybukh site’s proximity to active conflict has complicated the delivery of initial assistance. An Iraqi military spokesman was not immediately available to comment.