By Razaw Salihy, Iraq Campaigner at Amnesty International
Civilians caught in the crossfire are paying the ultimate price, as Iraqi forces aided by US-led coalition airstrikes continue to push west into the city of Mosul in an effort to drive the armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) out of neighbourhoods west of the Tigris River. The military operation to retake the city, which began on 17 October 2016, has already left hundreds of civilians dead and more than 300,000 displaced.
During a fact-finding mission to northern Iraq in mid-March 2017, Amnesty International met with a number of families who made it to safety in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the Ninewa governorate and in nearby areas under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). They told tales of unimaginable fear and suffering.
A mother of seven in KRG-controlled Hasan Shami IDP camp described the scene as she fled Mosul. After IS fighters had stationed themselves on the roof of her home in Tel Ruman neighbourhood in West Mosul, she had left her house and sheltered with family members for six days before fleeing the city:
“When we were running I saw two bodies on either side of the road. They were both old men in their dishdasha [traditional Arab dress] and jackets. The one closest to me had been shot in the chest. They had obviously been too old to run that fast and the Daeshi [Arabic colloquial term for IS members] had shot them. People can’t stay behind and collect the bodies when there are bullets flying everywhere. I saw another woman hit by a sniper and her sons carried on running. I saw them in the camp later. They were telling one of the members of the security forces about their mother and the man said ‘Forget it. Your mother is dead.’”
Prior to the offensive, the Iraqi government had instructed civilians to remain inside their homes. Those trying to flee did so at the risk of being detained or summarily killed by IS fighters. Men, women, children and elderly people walked and ran for miles. In order to survive and make it to safety, some had no choice but to leave family members behind.
An elderly woman from Hay al-‘Amel, West Mosul, described seeing a young mother abandon the body her infant, who had apparently died of exposure while fleeing the neighbourhood:
“She wrapped him in a blanket and left him on the side of the road. I could hear her howling for her baby while she ran.”
People described fleeing airstrikes that killed entire families inside their homes, ground fighting that involved, raining mortar fire, and a shortage of food and water. Most of those fleeing did so at night, in the rain, when poor visibility impeded IS snipers.
“The [drone] would hover over a house and that house would be hit by an airstrike between 15 minutes and an hour later. They [IS fighters] walk wall to wall, fire from roofs and in courtyards of civilian homes. They forced us to unhinge our front doors so they can come in as they liked, and made us open holes in our walls inside the house so it opened onto the neighbour’s house. If we tried to leave the house they’d beat us. They’re armed, so what can people do? Do those ordering the airstrike not know this?” a 28-year-old man from Rijm Hadid neighbourhood told Amnesty International.
Khattab, a father of five from the Hay al-‘Amel neighbourhood, described how their neighbours, a mother and her four children, were killed when their house was hit:
“There were no Daesh fighters anywhere near the house. When I arrived, all that was left was blood, rubble, and body parts. I saw the woman’s head decapitated. We gathered the body parts in plastic bags and buried them nearby. I thought to myself this could be us any day now, so we had to leave.”
Khawla Mohamed, a 41-year-old mother of eight from Hay al-Tanak, West Mosul, told Amnesty International:
“We ate canned tomato paste with the bread I was able to make from crushed wheat. My youngest son cried for milk but where was I going to get it from? I have no money and even if I did, they [IS fighters] stand at the end of each street. Anybody who tries to leave the neighbourhood is turned back if not beaten up. They don’t differentiate between men and women.”
Civilians who were able to flee the carnage arrived to chaotic overcrowded camps and makeshift screening centres. Amnesty International visited one such centre in Hamam al-Alil, approximately 34km south-east of Mosul. The centre was being managed by forces belonging to the Iraqi Interior Ministry and Defence Ministry. There was also a large number of members present from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), predominantly Shia militias, armed and equipped by the Iraqi government, some of which have been responsible for serious violations, including war crimes.
Several aid trucks accompanied by a convoy of armed PMU members arrived at the adjoining IDP camp at the time of Amnesty International’s visit. Cars adorned with PMU flags led the convoy, men in black and green military uniforms cleared the road by standing up through the sun roof, firing several shots in the air. Desperate IDPs rushed for the trucks amidst a disorganized aid distribution. People were warded off with sticks, shouted at and threatened with receiving nothing.
A mother of four who had fled Badush area, approximately 30km north-west of Mosul, described a similar aid distribution that had taken place when she and her family reached Iraqi forces after fleeing IS-held areas:
“They wouldn’t stop the trucks so people had to chase them for the bread they were throwing. I saw an old man run towards them and they threw the bread at his face. They were filming us. I wish we had been hit by a mortar and buried under our house rather than be degraded like this.”
Those who manage to make it out of Mosul alive and survive the treacherous road, find themselves in desperate surroundings despite the support that is pouring into Iraq from the international community. Between grief, loss, and uncertain future, Iraqis displaced from Mosul have little hope of returning home anytime soon. And those still trapped in the city are in danger of death every second of their lives, but fleeing is no less dangerous.
The Iraqi government forces and US-led coalition need to ensure they are taking necessary precautions to spare civilians still trapped in West Mosul. They must take full account of the use of civilians as human shields, and do everything possible to provide safe routes for civilians in a position to flee. And the authorities must ensure that the rights of the displaced are fully respected.