U.S. and Iraqi military strategists are preparing for a final drive on Mosul, hoping to dislodge Islamic State militants from their last stronghold in Iraq. But how well are they planning for the inevitable impact of that offensive on the city’s residents?
Hani El-Mahdi is the Iraq country representative for Catholic Relief Services. He told America via a Skype text interview this week that he expects that the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will represent the worst humanitarian crisis of 2016. That is saying a lot during a year and in a region that already contains millions of people displaced by civil war and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and by the Arabic acronym Da’esh.
Mosul has been the objective of Operation Fatah (Conquest) since March, but recent preparations by the anti-ISIS coalition, which includes Iraqi government forces, allied militias, Kurdish peshmerga forces, U.S. and allied air support and limited U.S. military ground forces, suggest a terminal push against ISIS in Mosul will be coming soon.
Anticipating the offensive, C.R.S. and other aid groups are preparing as best as they can, El-Mahdi says. He worries that the fall of Mosul could mean anywhere between 1 to 1.5 million more displaced people, a figure he bluntly calls “overwhelming.”
C.R.S. has already been training new staff and volunteers to assist, setting aside materials to meet the crisis whenever it occurs and “building more relations with local communities to guarantee safe access” to desert shelters.
The U.S. State Department announced on Sept. 14 more than $181 million in additional assistance “for critical humanitarian needs, including those expected to occur with Iraq’s planned military offensive to liberate Mosul from Da’esh occupation.” The money will support the operations of the United Nations, other international organizations and non-governmental organizations “to help respond to one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in the world.”
El-Mahdi has already seen evidence of significant new U.S. humanitarian resources flowing into the region, funding much of the prepositioning of emergency resources. All the same, he expects a large-scale crisis as thousands of people may be on the move away from ISIS or just to escape the fighting. U.N. officials hoped to raise $584 million to respond to Iraq’s crisis of internally displaced people (that is, people dislocated by conflict but not technically refugees because they did not cross national borders), but so far they have reached only 38 percent of that goal. El-Mahdi is concerned that contingency planners in Washington and New York, far from the conflict, may be underestimating the scale of the humanitarian disaster that may open up as Mosul falls. Important agencies like the U.N.’s World Food Program are already critically underfunded, he says.
With almost 3.4 million driven from their homes, Iraq already represents one of the world’s biggest internal displacement crises. In recent weeks, some 213,000 people have fled their homes in Iraq, including almost 50,000 from the Mosul area alone. There is little reason to expect that refugees from the siege of Mosul will experience anything different from those who recently fled during the fight for Fallujah. El-Mahdi explains most of them escaped the fighting into the harsh desert “with no preparation” and nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
U.N. officials say the effort to finally dislodge ISIS from Mosul could affect up to 1.2 million people. They report that the current camps set up to absorb residents fleeing Mosul will not be able to handle the anticipated numbers come the offensive, even as the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration prepares to care for as many as 138,000 families. They “will be accommodated in unfinished buildings and public structures such as mosques, churches and schools...to protect them from the harsh seasonal conditions.”
In a statement released on Aug. 26, I.O.M. Iraq Chief of Mission Thomas Lothar Weiss said: “The humanitarian emergency in Iraq continues to intensify, displacing even larger numbers of Iraqis from their homes. We must come prepared with the life-saving assistance that is desperately needed. Additional funding and enhanced coordination among all actors is immediately required to be able to protect and support those fleeing ISIL.”
According to El-Mahdi, most of the internally displaced people C.R.S. works with are living in temporary quarters arranged throughout the city of Erbil in the northern Iraq region currently under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government. About 20 percent are housed in what would be recognizable as refugee camps, he explains. Most of these people represent older waves of dislocated communities, Yazidi and Christians who fled in 2013-14 and who “were allowed to get into cities like Erbil and Duhok.”
These persecuted groups have been accepted in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, according to El-Mahdi. But the 2015 arrivals to the north from Fallujah—and most of those likely to flee north from Mosul—are Sunni Arabs..
“They are not actually allowed neither in Kurdistan Region (because of their Arab ethnicity) nor in major cities in Central Iraq like Kirkuk or Baghdad because they could be seen as sympathizers with ISIS.” El Mahdi is uncertain how the K.R.G. will respond to a large movement of Sunni Arabs into areas under its control. The Sunni Arabs are suspect as far as many Kurds are concerned because of their real or perceived support for ISIS. A large influx of Sunni Arabs north might provoke some effort at containment from the K.R.G., El-Mahdi fears.
Already most of the people dislocated from Fallujah, he says, have been prevented from entering Erbil and are living in precarious to life-threatening conditions on the open desert. “Imagine fleeing [your] town and villages then staying in the open in temperatures that exceed 115 to 120 degrees all the time,” he says. El-Mahdi says it is a challenge for his Catholic aid agency to win over the Sunni residents of these desert camps, now deeply distrustful of any entity that smacks of Western interests. Keeping an adequate aid flow into the impromptu camps is only the next challenge once some degree of trust is established.
El-Mahdi reports that C.R.S. teams have been delivering food, water and sanitation kits to the desert camps “and also other family items like women and children hygiene items, cooking sets, carpets and mattresses to sleep on.
“We also provide them with shelter units…to protect them from the harsh weather conditions.” He called the aid deliveries “another sign of Caritas’s success of serving people based on need and not creed.” (Caritas Internationalis is the official name of the Holy See’s umbrella organization of global humanitarian agencies like C.R.S.).
The end of the ISIS reign of terror would surely be welcome in the region, El-Mahdi says, but it will not mean the end of ISIS—an ideology he fears will persist whatever the outcome in Mosul—nor the end of crisis in Iraq. Though C.R.S. intends to stand by to help, he says it could be years before anyone will be able to return to their homes in communities that have been torn apart by combat, booby traps and sectarian divisions. Many of the people he works with will remain deeply hesitant about returning home “still traumatized by the past experience” and now unwilling to put their trust “in the protection by armies as such.”
But for those who want to stay in Iraq and rebuild, “we will be there to support them again,” El-Mahdi says. “But honestly we have not seen much return yet even in the so called ‘liberated’ areas from ISIS. Security and infrastructure conditions in those areas are not yet suitable for people's return.”