Mosul residents flee into desert as ISIS is driven from the city; Catholic Relief Services responds

Airstrikes target Islamic State positions on the edge of the Old City on July 11 a day after Iraq's prime minister declared "total victory" in Mosul, Iraq. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana) Airstrikes target Islamic State positions on the edge of the Old City on July 11 a day after Iraq's prime minister declared "total victory" in Mosul, Iraq. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

As the fighting subsides in Mosul and the final members of ISIS surrender or are eliminated by Iraqi military and coalition air strikes, many of the ruined city’s remaining residents have fled to camps on the nearby open desert.

The condition of these “internally displaced people” (I.D.P.s) is frankly miserable, according to Hani El-Mahdi, the country representative for Iraq from Catholic Relief Services. Mr. El-Mahdi says after surviving under ISIS for years, about 40,000 people made the dangerous passage out of the city after weeks of street-to-street combat, daily U.S. air attacks and ISIS bombings. Because Iraqi soldiers are worried about ISIS infiltrators and suicide bombers, those fleeing have had to abandon all possessions before making their way out of what remains of west Mosul: “This was the only way they could escape Mosul; they were not allowed to carry anything out.”

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Many have simply walked from the city to the desert camps, a distance of 20 to 30 kilometers, says Mr. El-Mahdi. Now they confront hunger, thirst and the desert’s unforgiving sun. Temperatures have hit 110 degrees, he says. “The summer heat is brutal.”

Many have simply walked from the city to the desert camps, a distance of 20 to 30 kilometers, says Mr. El-Mahdi. Now they confront hunger, thirst and the desert’s unforgiving sun. “The summer heat is brutal.”

Mr. El-Mahdi spoke to America from Dohuk, in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He says C.R.S. staff are bringing food, water and “summerization kits” from Dohuk to the newly displaced. The distance is only about 75 kilometers, but the journey can take hours as relief workers are required to pass through a number of checkpoints to get to the camps. Kurdish Peshmerga forces are on high alert to prevent ISIS militants from attempting to pass through to territory now under their control.

The relief packages include rechargeable electric fans, ventilation equipment for tents, cooling containers for food storage and shielding from the sun. According to U.N. estimates, more than 750,000 residents of Mosul have been displaced by the Iraqi offensive against ISIS, which began in October 2016.

This week Iraqi leaders have repeatedly announced that the city has been won back from ISIS, but according to Mr. El-Mahdi, sporadic fighting continues, displacing even more residents who have managed to survive the nine-month long Iraqi offensive to retake the city.

The civilian death toll may never be known, but according to Amnesty International, attacks launched by Iraqi and coalition forces alone may have caused the deaths of as many as 5,805 noncombatants. The international human rights monitor believes an accurate tally may be far in excess of that figure. Amnesty International issued a report on July 11 that spoke of the fight to retake west Mosul as a “civilian catastrophe.”

“Civilians have been ruthlessly exploited by the armed group calling itself the Islamic State, which has systematically moved them into zones of conflict, used them as human shields and prevented them from escaping to safety,” A.I. researchers said. “They have also been subjected to relentless and unlawful attacks by Iraqi government forces and members of the US-led coalition.”

According to the report, ISIS forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes—using residents as human shields and denying safe passage away from the fighting or medical assistance. ISIS militants “also summarily killed hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women and children as they attempted to flee and hanged their bodies in public areas.”

The report also alleges that Iraqi government and U.S.-led coalition forces “appear to have committed repeated violations of international humanitarian law, some of which may amount to war crimes.” Iraqi forces used IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions), which “wreaked havoc in densely populated west Mosul” because of their “crude targeting abilities.” The group also charges that because of “the use of unsuitable weapons or failure to take other necessary precautions,” the U.S.-led air campaign over Mosul “resulted in needless loss of civilian lives and in some cases appears to have constituted disproportionate attacks.”

Responding to the allegations at a press briefing the same day in Washington, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said, "I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians." He added, "I would challenge the people from Amnesty International or anyone else out there who makes these charges to first research their facts and make sure they're speaking from a position of authority."

He said the coalition went to "extraordinary measures to safeguard civilian lives, measuring every single time how many civilians may or may not be in the target area and what munition to employ and how can we strike that building and take out only that room and not the entire floor or the entire building."

Pentagon officials reported on July 7 that U.S.-led coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq have killed a total of 603 civilians, about half of those deaths recorded around Mosul, since the $13.1 billion air campaign against ISIS began in 2014. Independent combat monitoring groups report, however, that the number of civilian deaths during that period was 4,354 and possibly higher.

According to Mr. El-Mahdi, C.R.S. has already been working for nine months with about 30,000 people who had previously escaped from the Mosul area. These latest internally displaced persons have more than doubled the population in need. Most are Sunni Muslim, Mosul’s Christians having long departed the city and its surrounding communities.

“They are in a miserable condition,” he says. “They don’t know why this is happening to them, and they are really in a difficult position now because of who they are and their past experience.” Mosul’s Sunnis, he explains, know they cannot live under or trust ISIS, comprised of local militants but also a substantial percentage of fighters from other nations, but they are not yet ready to trust the Shiite-dominated government out of Baghdad. The Shiite leadership that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein has been either indifferent to Sunnis or at times sought to repress them. “They are in a high level of anxiety” about the future, Mr. El-Mahdi says.

He believes it may be a year or more before most can return to Mosul. Once the immediate life-saving response ends among the newly displaced, he expects that C.R.S. will begin offering long-term programs, including education for children, to help normalize life in the camps. C.R.S. reports that it is also supporting Caritas Iraq in providing food assistance for 1,000 families who remain in east Mosul.

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