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To Escape Mosul, Iraqis Dodge Mortars, Walk for Days


Displaced Iraqi Orouba Abdelhamid, 31, poses for a photograph with her children at Hammam al-Alil camp south of Mosul, Iraq, April 1, 2017. Abdelhamid's husband, an engineer, was killed in a rocket strike as government forces arrived to expel Islamic State from her home city Mosul. "No one is left for me over there so I came here... I cannot return to the house," she said.

The husband of Orouba Abdelhamid was killed in a rocket strike when Iraqi government forces arrived in her home city of Mosul as part of the military campaign to expel Islamic State fighters.

The 31-year-old Orouba was then trapped at home for days as her district in western Mosul turned into a battle zone between the government and the militants defending their last stronghold in Iraq. She eventually managed to flee with her three children.

“No one is left for me over there so I came here ... I cannot return to the house,” she told Reuters, sitting in the tent she shares with her brother’s family in the Hammam al-Alil camp, which is home to about 30,000 displaced people.

Reuniting with family

Orouba was eventually reunited with her brother in the camp after the two had had little contact since Islamic State overran Mosul in June 2014 and banned mobile phones under their extreme version of Sunni Islam.

Those who have fled Iraq’s second largest city describe a grueling journey, where in some instances entire neighborhoods have left together, often at daybreak, sometimes under mortar shelling or airstrikes.

Fathers covered their children’s eyes, neighbors helped carry the disabled, and men were often separated from their wives to be questioned by the Iraqi army manning the checkpoints around the city.

Walking for days

Like many others, Gorha Mahmoud said she and her family walked for 48 hours in the rain and cold before reaching Hammam al-Alil. They had to wait a further 24 hours at the entrance gate because there was no tent for them at first.

Displaced Iraqi Gorha Mahmoud (L), 40, poses for a photograph with family at Hammam al-Alil camp south of Mosul, Iraq, March 29, 2017.
Displaced Iraqi Gorha Mahmoud (L), 40, poses for a photograph with family at Hammam al-Alil camp south of Mosul, Iraq, March 29, 2017.

In the camp, a semblance of normality has returned for the families. Children 6 and older attend morning classes, women carry out domestic chores while men look for work and food.

“Here life is normal. The aid is plentiful and the people are nice,” Orouba said.

More than 300,000 flee

The United Nations refugee agency said in March it had opened two new camps to host those fleeing the fighting in Mosul, adding 40,000 places to its existing facilities.

More than 302,000 people have left Mosul since the military campaign began in October, according to the International Organization for Migration. Around 30,000 people were displaced last week alone.

However, about 400,000 people are trapped in western Mosul while the battles rage.

Mahmoud Abu Mohamed, who lives in a tent around the corner from Orouba after also fleeing from Mosul with his family, said the government needed to restore water in the city and remove dangerous debris from the fighting before people would return.

“If the water returns, everyone will go back,” he said.

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