With much of the world’s attention focused on the evacuation in Aleppo, Kevin Hartigan, Catholic Relief Services' regional director for the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe was in central Iraq reviewing preparations for another looming humanitarian crisis in the region. The struggle to liberate Mosul from ISIS militants has entered a third month of often savage street-to-street combat.
More weeks of fighting ahead appear likely in the campaign to permanently dislodge ISIS militants from Mosul and central Iraq. As many as 100,000 people have already fled the city, but thousands more inside Mosul, trapped by the fighting, have been waiting for opportunities to escape.
Mr. Hartigan reports that his team and Caritas volunteers are bracing for what may be unprecedented numbers of people in flight from the contested city.
“There’s a huge number of displaced [already] in Iraq,” he said, speaking from Baghdad on Dec. 14. “We’ve been assisting displaced, primarily minority communities from Mosul since 2014 up in the Kurdistan region of the country, and we are now preparing, as many organizations are, to assist the displaced coming out of Mosul. The numbers still are not nearly as large as we expected because the battle for the city is looking to be a long and slow one, unfortunately for everybody.
“Mosul is a very big city and up to now what has been happening is people are moving between neighborhoods within the city and that may be the pattern of the displacement we see: People may move to safer areas within the city and not leave [Mosul] completely.”
He explained, “They have more possibility of finding shelter within the city without venturing into the desert around it.” That is a treacherous enterprise not only because of exposure to the elements but because of the possibility of becoming caught in the crossfire between ISIS and Iraqi defense forces and supporting militias or falling prey to ISIS militants. Scores of displaced people have also been killed by improvised explosive devices as they attempted to reach safety.
C.R.S., in conjunction with local partner Caritas Syria, has also been assisting scores of families among more than 85,000 who fled previous fighting in Fallujah to relative safety in central and northern Iraq. Displaced Iraqis are already arriving from other smaller cities where the fight to extricate ISIS has been just as intense as in Mosul.
“We’re providing a lot of assistance to the people coming out of the town of Hawija,” Mr. Hartigan said. The strategically significant Hawija, once a city of more than 100,000, is an ISIS stronghold about 130 miles north of Baghdad and 34 miles southwest of Kirkuk.
“Most of these people are arriving with very few possessions; they’re arriving on foot and they’re really fleeing battle, like active battles,” Mr. Hartigan said. Many have to “seize a moment to escape” as lulls in fighting occur. That means recently displaced people arrive at the camps with little more than the clothes on their backs. “They have remarkably few possessions with them, say, even by the standards of displaced people,” Mr. Hartigan said.
The newcomers will join the older communities in facing harsh winter conditions as they await the conclusion of the struggle against ISIS.
“The winter is a huge concern,” Mr. Hartigan reports. “It’s in the north, north of the Nineveh plain, and Kurdistan, it gets very cold. It will be snowing and below freezing at night.” More temperate weather can be anticipated closer to Baghdad, but even there cold and wet weather is typical at night. Conditions in the camps can be “very unhealthy particularly for small children.”
While many have hunkered down in temporary shelters in camps for displaced people, others have taken refuge in unfinished buildings that are often exposed to the elements. “It’s really inadequate shelter,” Mr. Hartigan said. C.R.S. teams, in addition to providing kerosene space heaters, blankets and mattresses at the camps, have been assisting in winterizing these impromptu shelters, sealing openings and installing temporary windows and doors.
The restoration of communities decimated by the fighting or by fleeing ISIS militants could be years away, so long-term assistance among the displaced of the region, which includes many Christian families, will likely be necessary. No one can say when or if people will be able to return to their communities after ISIS is driven out.
The region’s infrastructure and communities have been pounded by months of street fighting, suicide car bombs, I.E.D.s and U.S. and coalition air strikes. Many communities have just been “demolished,” Mr. Hartigan reports.
Some Christian families have been going back to liberated villages to document their condition, “but they are finding enormous destruction.”
“There is a question [of] how safe these places are; a lot of them are still near conflict zones,” Mr. Hartigan said. Christians and Sunni families from Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces hoping to return to villages near the front-lines have to contend with unexploded ordnances, booby traps and mines, according to Mr. Hartigan. “And then there’s just enormous destruction and a lack of any utilities and services in those areas.”
The future for Iraqi Christians within Nineveh and throughout Iraq has rarely looked grimmer. Authors of a report on minority groups in Iraq and Syria say the ouster of ISIS from Mosul will not be enough alone to encourage Christians to return from exile.
Arne Saeveraas, an adviser for Norwegian Church Aid, says a survey of Christians who fled Mosul found that nearly 75 percent reported facing threats and violence even before ISIS took over the city in 2014. Iraq's population of Christians has fallen from about 700,000 to 250,000 since 2003. Most of those remaining are internally displaced.
The report notes that "before Islamic State (IS) took control of territory there had already been significant migration of minorities from Iraq because of marginalisation and persecution."
"In this regard, the eventual defeat of IS alone will not solve these underlying dangers or ensure that minorities return to their place of origin."
The group warns that the defeat of ISIS may in fact only signal the beginning of a new period of uncertainty for Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities. "Especially in Iraq, the process of driving IS away sets in motion power struggles between larger sectarian groups—exactly the type of social tension that exacerbates the vulnerability of minorities."