HAMMEM ALEEL, IRAQ - “When Islamic State militants took over, we buried our AK-47’s in the garden,” said Khalil Hamad, a father of five, at the newest refugee camp surrounding Mosul, Iraq, on Tuesday.
Nearly 8,000 people had fled to the camp since it opened Monday afternoon, and busloads of families continued to stream in. Islamic State militants were going house to house demanding that residents move deeper into Mosul, and many families, like Hamad’s, risked their lives to go the other way.
“Two militants tried to stop us; we argued with them,” said Hamad. “We were 50 families and we had a few guns. They were scared and let us go.”
Neighbors behind him were not as lucky. After Hamad escaped, he called a friend still inside IS territory who said the two militants had called for backup and killed 17 people trying to flee.
Iraqi and coalition forces are now engaging in some of the fiercest fighting since the offensive to retake Mosul from IS began in October, slowly pushing into western districts in the city. Iraqi forces do not publish military casualty numbers, but doctors say roughly 50 civilians have been injured daily in fighting in recent days and some have been killed. More than 175,000 people have fled their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration.
“It’s harder on the western side because many of the militants fled there when we were fighting on the eastern side of Mosul,” said Iraqi Army Captain Amir Abdulsada on Wednesday in a makeshift base overlooking the eastern bank of the Tigris River. “They have built tunnels and cut roads, with civilian cars planted with bombs, and laid IEDs.”
Searching for family
At the camp, 20-year-old Dallel asked to borrow a passing journalist’s cell phone. Her father escaped Mosul a month ago when militants were rounding up former police officers and soldiers, and she hasn’t heard from him since.
She called an uncle, hoping he would help her get out of the camp and find her father; but no one answers.
The day before, militants knocked on their door in the western Mosul suburbs, saying they had to move further into the city, or their houses would be blown up by afternoon. When the militants were not looking, they ran the other way.
“There were bombs on the roads,” she said, crouching in the shade of a plastic tent with her mother and sisters. “We saw children missing limbs and dead bodies, but we couldn’t stop.”
Other families say they know which camp their relatives are staying in, but lost or confiscated identification has made it difficult to move.
Dallel’s month-and-a-half-old niece, Aleel, also is missing her father, added Dallel's mother, Muntaha. He was arrested by IS militants for smoking a shisha (hookah) four months ago, before his daughter was born.
“He’s gone,” said Muntaha, cradling her grandchild.
City under siege
Many families in the camps surrounding Mosul fled IS brutality, or mortars, airstrikes and gunfire from the ongoing battle.
Worse than the fighting, families say, is the hunger.
“We ran out of food three months ago,” said Khalifa, a mother of three, sitting inside a tent on a cement floor on Tuesday. It wasn’t until Monday that they finally left Mosul, where they were forced to move before Iraqi forces defeated IS militants in Khalifa's village six months ago. “All we had to eat was tomato paste. We mixed it with water and called it food.”
As far as she knows, her home is still standing, but getting from the camp to the village is difficult, she said. “We don’t even have the money to pay for a taxi.”
Just then, the toddler in her arms softly cried out for food. “We don’t have any rice,” Khalifa cooed as her daughter quieted. At the camp, there are few luxuries but at least her children have been fed, Khalifa said.
Tuesday was not their first attempt at fleeing Mosul, added her husband, Mohaned Ahmed, 32. Last year, the family tried to travel to eastern Mosul toward the beginning of the offensive, hoping to get close enough to Iraqi forces to sneak over to the other side of the Tigris river; at an IS checkpoint, however, militants said they were no longer permitted to travel to visit relatives on the other side.
As they were approaching the checkpoint, Ahmed's three-year-old daughter, Ibtesam, was excited about the journey, having heard adults refer to the Iraqi forces’ approach as “liberation.”
“She said, ‘Let’s hurry and get liberated before we come back,’” according to Ahmed. “Thank God she didn’t say it in front of the militants.”