“They call and cry over the phone,” said Nadia Yunus. She was speaking about her brother’s family still trapped inside the basement of their home in Mosul, seven months after Iraqi forces launched a military operation to retake the city from the Islamic State with the support of an international coalition led by the United States.
Yunus’s relatives are among the 500,000 people stuck inside western Mosul where the fighting continues. Food and water are running out. Bodies are piling up. No one is able to keep count of the dead, let alone bury them, say survivors.
Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city, with two million people. It was captured by the Islamic State or ISIS in June 2014. The Iraqi forces moved to retake the city in October 2016. As the army entered the streets, ISIS fighters exploded car bombs and took sniper position on the rooftops of homes. Coalition forces then pounded the city from the air, say survivors.
Nadia Yunus’s brother lives with his family in Al Farouq neighbourhood on the western side of the city. Two mortar shells burst inside the courtyard of house about a month ago. There were no ISIS fighters taking position on the roof, she said, and the family was not expecting to be hit.
Yunus said her sister-in law Laila was “burnt immediately”. Her niece Jawahar’s arm was severed and she died. Three cousins, Anwar, Riyad, Najah, were also killed. The flying shrapnel seriously injured her brother, Salah Yunus Marei, in the back. “It is a deep wound,” she said. “They only have cotton to dress it. Four others – three of her nephews and a child – are injured as well. “There is no medical aid.”
With food and water running out, about 15 people stuck inside the house are “dying of hunger”, Yunus added. “ISIS is not letting them escape. They have locked the house.”
The family cannot even make calls. “If they are found using the phone, ISIS will shoot them.”
Said Yunus: “They call secretly and cry. We cry with them.”
A sprawling city on the banks of the river Tigris in northwestern Iraq, Mosul lies just 120 km east of the country’s border with Syria.
In the summer of 2014, the chaos of the Syrian civil war spilled into Iraq, as armed militants loyal to the former Al-Qaeda leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi swept into Mosul. The Iraqi army fled and Baghdadi declared a global caliphate from Mosul – a state governed by sharia or Islamic law. Signboards in the city were repainted to mark the Islamic State’s territorial claims: Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, was shown as its vilayet or province.
In October 2014, a US-led coalition launched Operation Inherent Resolve, a campaign to help Iraq take back territories from ISIS. Last year, the coalition turned its attention to Mosul. Before the operation began on October 17, the Iraqi government dropped pamphlets over the city, asking people to stay inside their homes.
With the army advancing, the ISIS fighters began to herd people from home to home, street to street, using them as human shields, people who left the city later said. Crammed inside houses, people say they did not expect to be bombed by the coalition forces in what Amnesty International describes as “an alarming pattern” which has “destroyed whole houses with entire families inside”. A report by Human Rights Watch documents damage to homes by “multi-weapon airstrike using large air-dropped bombs”.
A single airstrike in Al Jadida neighbourhood on March 17 killed more than 100 civilians. A commander of the Iraqi forces said the airstrike had been called to “take out ISIS snipers” on the roof of the building. “I think it was a trap by ISIS to stop the bombing operations and turn public opinion against us,” he said. But one of the two only survivors has told the Associated Press that there were no ISIS fighters present on the roof.
The heavy casualties in the March 17 airstrike provoked outrage around the world. But it did not stop the steady shelling over western Mosul, say people who have recently escaped from there. As many as 1,254 people have been killed in airstrikes in western Mosul in March and April alone, according to Iraq Body Count, an independent group that monitors civilian casualties. On its part, the coalition forces have acknowledged just 44 civilian deaths in airstrikes in the city since November. Iraq has claimed more than 1,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in the operation since October.
Five bridges spanning the Tigris connected the older and denser neighbourhoods of western Mosul with the eastern side. All the bridges were destroyed in airstrikes to immobilise the ISIS fighters, but this also made it harder for civilians to escape. ISIS, or Da’esh, as it is known in Arabic, has been ruthless towards men who tried to run. “My brother was shot dead by Da’esh while he was trying to rescue an 85-year-old woman by carrying her on his back,” said a man from the Al Maghrib neighbourhood. Fahima from Rajim al-Hadid said ISIS snipers hit her sister-in-law near the school while she was fleeing the neighbourhood.
A pontoon bridge has been built 60-km south of the city. From here, it is possible to travel up the western bank of the Tigris to the Al Akrab checkpoint, 10 km short of the city. Here, on May 1, people boarded trucks, buses, satoutas (cart pulled by motorcycle) to head back to their homes that have been retaken by the army. Some loaded fresh mattresses. Others carried bottles of water.
While civilians were allowed to pass, Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service turned back journalists. “Take permission from the field marshal,” an officer told Scroll.in. Asked where he was, the officer said: “On the frontline.”
With access to the western side restricted, survivor accounts remain the only window into western Mosul.
People from the Al Jadeda neighbourhood told Scroll.in that the airstrike on March 17 was one of many. “There is a street next to a pickle shop in the market where all the houses have been hit by the pilot. All the people have died,” said Mohammad Abdulla Hussain, describing what he saw in the last week of April. There is no count of the dead but “you can smell the bodies,” he said, as he rushed to jump onto an army truck heading back into western Mosul. Ever since they had heard reports of homes being looted, people were desperate to go back, even though some of the areas remained within shelling range.
A group of men from Al Tanek, which was retaken by the army in the last week of April, compared the devastation in their neighbourhood to Kobane, the Syrian city where 3,200 buildings were destroyed in four months of fighting in 2015. “Ninety percent [of Al Tanek] has been destroyed. Even roads have been hit by airstrikes, creating craters as big as 10 metres by 3 metres,” said Ibrahim Al-Nuaimi. Six of the seven members in his brother’s family have died. “Only this girl is alive,” he said, pointing to a child.
His account was corroborated by a woman from Al Tanek neighbourhood, Fidah Sardana, who said her husband told her 11 people were killed in airstrikes on two houses in their street. “The house of Abu Shayab and Abu Rayan,” she said. “Everything is destroyed, finished,” she clapped her hands, like she was wiping off dust.
The UN Human Settlements Programme has said more than 1,140 housing sites have been destroyed in the city. The damage in western Mosul is two and a half times greater than in the eastern districts. One-third of the houses destroyed are in Al Jadeda. A man from the neighbourhood, who did not want to be identified, said: “The airforce should have used different types of weapons. Why have they destroyed entire properties and killed 30-40 civilians for the sake of just one-two ISIS members?”
Nuaimi criticised the destruction by airstrikes as deliberate and disproportionate. “ISIS was putting up weak resistance,” he said. “It was retreating.”
Sardana’s children had starved and her family had fled Al Tanek in March under the cover of darkness. Defending the military action, she said, “There was no other way.” Despite the heavy use of force, the ISIS fighters were not leaving. In neighbourhoods that they still control, “they are killing people, arresting them, executing them”.
Worried sick about her brother’s family, Yunus simply had an appeal: “I request the government to accelerate the advance to Al Farouq to save the lives of the people who are still stuck there.”
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