MOSUL - About 200 meters outside Mosul’s Old City, you can hear the battle raging inside. But families, which typically flee Islamic State militants as soon as Iraqi forces get close, are no where to be seen.
Civilians who did escape say fewer people are coming because IS militants are executing anyone they can catch and forcing the rest of the people to remain in their homes. Many people are in hiding, trapped as “human shields.”
Besides IS snipers, Mosul residents are victims of airstrikes, car bombs, sniper fire, and mortars from both sides. Civilian death tolls are soaring and nearly 290,000 people have fled.
As many as 8,000 people per day have arrived at camps surrounding Mosul in recent weeks, but officials say that number is decreasing because so many civilians are trapped.
Outside a camp that serves as a make-shift bus station for fleeing families, children describe seeing their neighbors murdered by IS as they fled.
“We ran away because we had no food and mortars were dropping on the houses,” says 11-year-old Kamla. “We ran fast through the hills. So many people were shot dead behind us.”
The past week has seen some of the most brutal fighting since operations to re-take Iraq from Islamic State militants began in October, and soldiers have been battling at the edges of Mosul’s Old City for weeks.
Iraqi forces say fighting in the Old City requires them to enter on foot, while IS snipers hide out in buildings above. And while in previous battles, many militants have fled, IS is now holding its ground in its last stronghold in Mosul.
“Because so many IS fighters remaining are foreign, the battles are fierce,” says Lt. Col. Abdulamir al-Muhammadawi, of one of Iraq’s elite front-line fighting forces, the Emergency Response Division. “But our soldiers are accomplishing our mission.”
In areas captured by Iraqi forces in the past few days, IS mortars and other weapons left behind indicate that when the militants are beaten, they are retreating fast.
Last week, some Iraqi officials said operations would pause as suspected U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on civilian homes were investigated.
But soldiers here in Mosul say they are not slowing down. And families say the death and destruction is so extreme that, more than anything else, they just want it to end.
“We hid in our house for 10 days, terrified,” says Najal Ismaili, a grandmother of 20, who fled her home on Wednesday. “May God banish the militants and cure us from this evil.”