A quickening flow of civilians is leaving the city of Mosul, fleeing fighting between Iraqi security forces and the ISIS militants who have held the city for more than two years.
A total of 28,400 people have run away since an offensive to retake the densely populated western half of the city began Feb. 19, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Since Feb. 25, about 4,000 people a day have been escaping, the body said in a statement, the highest sustained daily rate of displacement since the struggle to retake Mosul began in October – on the eastern side.
Most people are being picked up by Iraq’s security forces and moved to camps in towns and villages south of the city. Aid agencies are scrambling to expand the capacities of the camps in anticipation of more people arriving soon.
Estimates of how many people currently live in western Mosul vary. The number is certainly in the hundreds of thousands, and the U.N. says it may be as high as 750,000.
At a newly built camp outside the flyblown town of Hamam al-Alil, south of Mosul, some of the first to arrive last week described appalling conditions inside the city — and a narrow escape.
“It was a hard day,” said Amsha Mohammad, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. “The army was here and ISIS was here, and we were trapped in the fighting for four hours.”
She said the numbers of ISIS fighters in the city is now relatively small – her guess was between 1,000 and 1,500 – but a group of 12 militants held off an army assault for hours. After they were defeated, the family begged the security forces to help them.
“They told us, thank God for your safety, and brought us here,” she said.
Her son, Samir Khalil, a laborer, said he had followed the news by listening secretly to the radio on a phone that ISIS would have killed him for having, if they’d found it. So he knew that if they waved white flags, the security forces would help them.
Shaking his head, he said they had experienced terrible hardship under the militants. Government salaries and supply routes were cut off and food had become scarce.
Then, five months ago, ISIS forced them out of their homes on the edge of the city and moved them into a vegetable market further inside the city: a tactic that provided the militants with human shields.
“We ate flour mixed with dirty water,” said Amsha Mohammad, his mother. Her face contorted with disgust. “It made us sick.”
Their homes are in an area that is now retaken from ISIS, although heavily mined. They plan to go back.
“I’ll return to my house, with ISIS gone,” Amsha Mohammad said, practically spitting with rage as she described how the militants killed people for the smallest infractions of their rules: a secret cigarette, a woman’s uncovered hand.
“If I catch any ISIS,” she said, “I will kill him. I will eat his flesh.”