If Idris Mohsin Khalifa had a choice, he would not live even for an hour in the dull-yellow house in Hay-al-Salam in eastern Mosul. Not because the roof has a gaping hole made by an exploding mortar. But because of the smell of rotting bodies next door.

In January, Iraqi forces entered the middle-class neighbourhood as part of the military operation to take back Iraq’s second-largest city from the Islamic State or ISIS. Days of pitched battles followed in the lanes lined up with double-storeyed houses. Around noon on January 5, a group of ISIS fighters forced their way into one of the houses on the street where Khalifa now lives. Minutes later, there was a loud explosion. An airstrike had flattened that house and two others next to it.

Eight days later, the bodies of six civilians were pulled out of the rubble.

But those of four ISIS fighters were left behind. “Let the dogs eat them,” residents said the army told them.

As the days get warmer, the bodies are rotting. Repeated requests made to municipal authorities to remove them have gone unheard, say residents. The stench has forced the family living next door to leave and rent a house in another neighbourhood. But such are the levels of desperation in Mosul that five other families – 43 people in all – have moved in. One of them is Khalifa’s.

“We are displaced people,” he said, standing on the roof of the house with his sons on April 28. “We are from the left side of the city.”

The bodies of ISIS fighters lie in the rubble next to the damaged house in which Idris Mohsin Khalifa lives. Photo credit: Supriya Sharma.

After taking the neighbourhoods on the eastern side of river Tigris, the army moved to the west. In the maze of homes that make up the city’s Old Quarter, the street fighting has been intense, say survivors. So have been the airstrikes.

Khalifa, who is a daily wage worker, said his house in the Rajim-al-Hadid neighbourhood has been hit by an airstrike. The family had mercifully evacuated before that, at the start of April. They had two options: either live in overcrowded tents propped outside the city, or find shelter in whatever home they could rent on the eastern side.

If it is a home with dead bodies lying next door, so be it, said Khalifa.

The deputy governor of Nineveh province, of which Mosul is a part, expressed surprise when Scroll.in informed him about the bodies lying in Hay-al-Salam. “The municipal department has orders to search and find dead bodies,” he said. “If unidentified, they must be buried after an autopsy with DNA samples taken.”

The exodus

Half a million people have fled their homes, leaving everything behind, the United Nations said on April 17. Most of them have fled western Mosul where the war is ongoing.

“We were waving white flags,” recalled Riyadh Nadir Khadar, 33, who walked for three hours on the night of March 8 before reaching an army-controlled area. “They saw children with us and felt secure.”

Riyad Nadir Khadar escaped western Mosul in early March. He was taken to a refugee camp outside the city but he found the tents were overcrowded. Photo credit: Supriya Sharma.

Life on the western side had turned harrowing, said Khadar. Shortages had gripped the city. “There was nothing left to eat, only bread and tomato paste.” People drank water from drains. “There was no electricity to pump water from the wells.” Mobile phones were charged using car batteries hidden in the basements. Had ISIS discovered his devices, he would have been killed, said Khadar.

Escape was difficult. ISIS fighters had locked the main gate of their house. But Khadar’s family found a way out, using the tunnels and holes in the walls that the fighters had made to move between houses.

Once they reached the army-controlled areas, like Idris, Khadar chose not to stay in the refugee camps. He rented a house on the eastern side, but is now running out of money.

Before ISIS took over the city, Khadar worked in a coffee shop and lived comfortably on a daily income of 25,000 Iraqi dinars (20 dollars). But ISIS closed down coffee shops along with hairdressing salons, cigarette vends and other businesses they considered un-Islamic. Khadar was forced to sell his wife’s jewellery. “To turn it into food to survive,” he said. During the siege, he sold the earrings of Sara, his 3-year old daughter. Now the family has nothing left.

But they still don’t want to go to a refugee camp.

Mother courage

This family was walking back to their neighbourhood in western Mosul after it was recaptured by the army. Photo credit: Supriya Sharma.

She was walking resolutely, holding the hand of her daughter. Her sons, one of whom clutched a plastic bag stuffed with clothes, followed behind. A few steps away, her neighbours struggled to keep pace with the family.

The group was heading back to their neighbourhood, Al Tanek, on the western side of the city, a week after it was recaptured by the Iraqi army.

Sardana, 41, lived with her husband, five daughters and three sons in a house which doubled up as a shop – the couple sold wedding dresses for a living. When ISIS arrived in 2014, some uneducated people in the city welcomed them, but she was not fooled, said Sardana, speaking a smattering of English. “We knew they were not decent people,” she said.

But the initial days of ISIS rule brought some relief to the people, she added. Under the Iraqi government that had taken charge after Saddam Hussain’s ouster in 2003, Mosul’s residents had felt oppressed. The city had a majority Sunni Arab population, and the government was led by Shia leaders. The movements of Mosalwis were restricted by the police. After ISIS took over, said Sardana, “the checkpoints were removed. People started to move freely unlike before. The prices went down.”

But the relief did not last long. ISIS started to kill people. “It was like death,” she said.

In October, when the Iraqi government dropped pamphlets over Mosul, announcing its intent to retake the city, Sardana stocked up food, water and first aid kits, preparing for the siege. Little did she know it would drag on for months, her mother would be killed in a car bomb explosion and her children would starve. Fed up of the hunger, on the night of March 7, escaped with them as part of a group of sixty. “Only women and children,” she said. Her husband stayed back. Men who were fleeing were being shot dead by ISIS snipers.

Outside Mosul, the families found themselves in a camp run by a Kuwaiti charity organisation. To her shock, Sardana found the management was discriminating among the refugees. “They were giving plates and stoves to families from the Al-Waizi tribe,” she said, pointing to the complex social divisions even within the Sunni Arabs. “They were even giving them more food.”

The children starved while their neighbourhood was under siege. In a refugee camp, food continued to be scarce. Photo credit: Supriya Sharma.

Last week, Iraqi forces finally recaptured Al Tanek. Many in the neighbourhood had died – 11 people were killed in airstrikes on two houses on Sardana’s street. But her husband came out safely and was reunited with his family. With her husband back, Sardana, who was tired of living in the camp, decided to leave behind half the children in his care, and go back to the city to explore the possibility of returning there. “If aid organisations are distributing relief supplies in my neighbourhood, I prefer living there,” she said. “Not in the camp.”

The family had walked and hitched rides all morning when I met them on the road to western Mosul around noon on May 1. Their faces looked weather-beaten. The children bore signs of severe malnutrition.

Sardana and her neighbour, Khadija, allowed the children to be photographed, but they hesitated when the camera turned towards them. “We are not looking pretty,” they laughed. On second thoughts, Sardana asked: “Will we be seen by the international community? In that case, go ahead.”

Fidah and Khadija have lived through a nightmare. Credit: Supriya Sharma.

Read Supriya Sharma’s first report from Mosul here.