Tears and tales of horror at Iraq’s refugee camps
BAGHDAD - They have braved mortars and sniper fire making their way through the desert past wreckage and the bodies of friends and neighbours. Families fleeing villages in the outskirts of Mosul, where Iraqi forces backed by the US-led coalition are fighting to retake the Islamic State-controlled city, arrived at refugee camps exhausted and stripped of their belongings.
“We had to walk for two long days amid great fear, shelling and lack of water and food. I was terrified by the idea that I could lose a member of my family, especially my elderly father, who almost collapsed on the way, without the help of other fleeing families,” said Mohamad, who arrived with his family of seven at Khazir refugee camp near Erbil in Iraq’s Kurdistan.
The 35-year-old farmer, who spoke on condition of using a pseudonym, fled his village of Kokajli, east of Mosul, although it has been liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS).
“Heavy bombardment and continuous shelling by ISIS artillery forced us to leave our homes otherwise we would have been killed like scores of innocent civilians,” Mohamad said.
His self-proclaimed “odyssey of suffering” is similar to that of thousands of families who have swarmed refugee camps on Kurdistan’s border since the battle for Mosul started a month ago.
Amer Kassem, 41, was also displaced from Kokajli but, unlike Mohamad, was ordered to leave by Iraqi security forces. “We were surprised by the decision to deport us to refugee camps under the pretext that we are not original inhabitants of Kokajli. My family (of eight) and I have suffered from repeated displacement since we fled our native town of Bartala (east of Mosul) in 2014,” he said.
Kassem had been settled in Kokajli for ten days when the offensive to retake Mosul began. “We have not seen a moment of stability for the past two years, and now this,” he said “Life in the camp is very difficult. Conditions are unbearable and they will become even worse with the beginning of winter.”
Humanitarian groups warned before the assault on Mosul began that as many as 1 million people could be displaced and that the camps were unprepared because of a lack of funding. More than 54,000 people have fled Mosul, the United Nations said, but more than 1 million others are believed to be trapped in the besieged city, Iraq’s second largest, which ISIS forces are desperately defending.
Khazir and the nearby Hassan Sham camp house more than 21,000 refugees but, with Iraqi forces pushing deeper into Mosul, the number of families streaming in is expected to increase, said Razkar Obaid, the official in charge of the refugee camps in the Erbil area.
“Some 4,000 families, mostly from the suburbs of Mosul, have arrived in Khazir and Hassan Sham, which have 6,000 and 7,000 tents, respectively. Medical teams and ten ambulances are placed on standby to assist wounded refugees reaching the camps,” Obaid said.
The displaced families are being allowed into the camps where they are assigned tents after undergoing a security check.
“Their papers are examined thoroughly to prevent infiltration by ISIS members,” Obaid said.
“The situation is simply tragic,” said a social activist who asked to be identified as Alaa. “Most families got out of Mosul leaving all their belongings behind. They need essential assistance, including warm clothing and heating material to protect them from cold and sickness. Aid offered by international organisations and government agencies is not sufficient to meet the needs in the camps, which lack basic services,” he said.
Iraqi Minister of Migration and Displacement Jassim Mohammed al-Jaff warned that the humanitarian crisis threatens the lives of thousands of refugees, pointing out that the average number of people displaced daily from Mosul and its environs, Hawija and Kirkuk is about 1,853, with the number is expected to rise to 500,000 by the end of military operations.
Complaining about the lack of funds to face Iraq’s biggest humanitarian crisis to date, Jaff said in recent press statements that his ministry was severely cash-strapped with less than $30,000 in its coffers.
MP Raad al-Dahlaki, head of the parliament committee on migration and displacement, said about 1.3 million people have been resettled in their homes in the provinces of Diyala, Anbar and Saladin since the beginning of 2015 but a large number could not return to their villages because of the absence of basic services.
As the battle rages for Mosul, the UN refugee agency is proceeding with the construction of more camps to house the swelling number of refugees.