HAMMAM ALEEL, MOSUL, IRAQ —
As Islamic State militants' hold on Mosul crumbles, so do the lives of many people fleeing the increasingly chaotic battles. Militants are fighting from civilian homes, and hours after Ayman Khalaf, 25, escaped Mosul, he broke down in tears and rage outside a refugee camp, telling VOA how 19 of his family members were killed and he was forced to abandon their bodies in the rubble. VOA could not independently confirm the account, but it is consistent with other reports from the region and VOA spoke to at least three other witnesses to the incident. Here, Khalaf tells VOA his story.
Militants came to my house and put a pistol to my head. They had issued orders for all the families to move north because Iraqi forces were coming to our neighborhood.
"What?" one demanded with the gun still to my head. "Are you waiting for the infidels to liberate you?" He meant Iraqi and coalition forces.
"I am not waiting for the infidels," I said, trying to sound polite. "Please just don't kick me out of my house."
"If you don't leave now I will burn your house, your family and you."
Not wanting to show his face in fear for the lives of relatives still in Islamic State territory, Ayman Khalaf says he lost 19 relatives when a helicopter fired at an IS militant fighting from his brother's rooftop a few days before March 16, 2017, in Hammam Aleel, Iraq. (Screengrab, H. Murdock/VOA)
He cocked the pistol, but my mother and sisters jumped on top of me. He couldn't kill me without killing them first.
This was less than two weeks ago, and we moved to the train station area that day. There were about 100 of us in two houses when it happened.
Two days ago, an IS militant fired at Iraqi helicopters from the rooftop of my brother's house. Then he ducked inside to hide. The helicopter shot back, killing 19 members of my family. Nineteen people.
Do you know they are doing this? They are fighting from people's rooftops and coalition forces are fighting back with families inside. They burned our cars. They stole all the furniture. They beat up women.
Where is my little niece? Look at her. How is it fair that this could happen to a little girl? Her father is dead, but it was not the helicopter that killed him. After the houses collapsed, he tried to fight his way through the debris to find his wife.
When IS militants saw him moving, they shot him dead for no apparent reason.
This camp of 4,000 tents was filled in three days in Hammam Aleel, Iraq, March 16, 2017. However, the U.N. says the worst of the displacement crisis is yet to come. More than a quarter of a million people have fled their homes since the Mosul offensive began in October. (H. Murdock/VOA)
My other brother was also killed. He was 14 years old. My nieces and cousins are dead. There were also babies, 10 months, two months and 15 days old.
We are living in a catastrophe. There are no words to describe the disasters raining down on our heads.
We spent the next two days digging bodies out of the rubble and now they are all laying in the garden. Iraqi soldiers told us to run away, because the neighborhood was taking mortar fire. We didn't have time to bury their bodies.
I want to go back, but the road is closed.
Iraqi forces drive families from the front lines to camps where they are registered and their names are checked against lists of known IS soldiers. But as government and aid groups scramble to build more camps, families are pouring out of the wars zone faster than ever in Mosul, Iraq, March 16, 2017. (H. Murdock/VOA)
I swear the only thing in the world I want now is to take my family's bodies out of the garden and bury them. They are exposed and dogs are eating their flesh. And it's not just their bodies we left behind. There are others, even in my neighborhood.
They say this is Islam? I swear, if this really was Islam, I would give up on religion. Evil for no reason is better than evil in the name of God. This is not Islam.
Iraqi forces asked me to share information about the location of the IS militants. I did it, and then they liberated us. I am finished with it all.