HAMMAM ALEEL —
Every day, thousands of people are fleeing Mosul, Iraq — many running as the walls of their homes collapse.
Bombs, airstrikes and helicopter attacks rain down in crowded city neighborhoods while Islamic State militants fire at the families running away.
“It was a storm of mortar and gunfire," says Mariam Hassan, a grandmother of 17 at a camp east of Mosul.
“You could not even go out the front door. We hid under the stairs while the militants and the Iraqi forces fired at each other.”
Thousands of families arrive at reception centers daily as they flee Mosul in Hammam Aleel, Iraq on March 19, 2017. (H.Murdock/VOA)
Pace of fighting picks up
And as the pace of the battle with Islamic State militants accelerates, so too does the crisis for Mosul families. More than a quarter million people have fled their homes since operations began to retake the city began in October, and the most densely populated areas under IS control are quickly becoming battle zones.
Aid workers say a million people might be displaced from Mosul by the time the war is through.
In recent weeks, the fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants has intensified, and soldiers say the battle that began last week — for Mosul's Old City — could be the deadliest yet.
Just outside the battlezones in Hammam Aleel, Iraqi helicopters prepare to fire on IS militants fighting from the rooftops in Mosul on March 19, 2017. (H.Murdock/VOA)
Militants posing as refugees
And as crowds arrive in the rapidly growing number of camps surrounding Mosul, security forces are cautious. They say IS militants are attempting to sneak out of the city, posing as refugees.
“We have sources reporting IS militants in cities, towns and villages,” says Iraqi soldier Ali Hussein, while guarding a camp as families arrive. “We also have photographs and know if someone is giving us a fake ID.”
Soldiers explain security procedures intended to catch any militants trying to flee with families as they arrive at camps outside of Mosul on March 19, 2017 in Hammam Aleel, Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)
Conditions are tough
Families say the camps are often short on medical care, food and electricity, but these conditions are often better than the war they fled.
“We used to store water in tanks, but when shrapnel hit them it was gone," says Hussain, a father of four who was an electrician before Islamic State militants moved into Mosul. “We also ran out of food.”
The United Nations says it needs $37 million in additional funding to keep operations going over the next month as Iraqi forces attack IS in the most densely populated parts of Mosul.