Mosul refugees live in fear, uncertainty

Food, fuel and water are running out in Iraq’s second largest city, causing thousands to flee ahead of the air strikes many fear will precede a government counter-offensive to retake cities captured by Islamist insurgents earlier this month. Escaping Mosul residents interviewed by The Hindu on Sunday said power supply was down to two hours a day, while petrol and cooking gas were not available.

At least 39 Indian construction workers are believed to be trapped in the city, being held under guard by Islamist insurgents.

Local residents leaving the city told The Hindu that migrant workers had been forced to build defensive earthworks on Mosul’s outskirts. Fatah Hassan, who fled Mosul three days ago, told The Hindu that he had visited a construction site where Indians worked and found that insurgents had set up a base there.

Husain Atiyah, a truck driver, also recalled seeing Indians at a construction site on Mosul’s suburbs — some easily identifiable as Sikhs by their bright turbans. “I had talked to some of them,” he said. “I have no idea where they are now, though.”

Mr. Atiya also had a message: “please tell Amitabh [Bachchan] we love him.” “I miss his films now more than ever,” he said, “but there is nowhere I can watch one.”

Fear grips refugees

Early on Sunday morning, hundreds began lining up near a giant earthwork across the Mosul-Erbil highway — men, children, women, standing in the 40ºC heat without shade or water, in the hope of being allowed across the mud on to the road to freedom.

Hammad Hassan was one of the few people going the other way, dragging two large black suitcases that he said were stuffed with food and medicine. “I don’t know why the hell I’m going back”, he said. “I really don’t.”

Fifty metres away, men dressed in Punjabi-style suits watched quietly: insurgents of the Dawlat al-Islami al-Iraq wa al-Shams, called the dasht by local residents, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams/Syria by the rest of the world.

“They asked us to stay,” said Ruqqya Ahmad Hassan, a single mother of one with ageing parents to care for, “saying Mosul would be a citadel against the râfidah [an abusive word for Shia Muslims], and we would earn god’s blessings.” “The city is dying,” she said, “and I do not want my children to die with it”.

Peshmerga, the army of Iraq’s quasi-independent Kurdistan region, had barred vehicles from moving into their territory after a suicide bomber targeted barracks a few kilometres up the road. The Peshmerga’s post at Bazwa, back down the road, was littered with burnt-out pick-up trucks and jeeps.

“There are at least a thousand people trying to come out every day,” said the Peshmerga’s commander at Gokcheli, the last Kurdish outpost, on Mosul’s industrial suburbs. “Lots of Sunnis, lots of Shia, one Palestinian. No Indians or Pakistanis though, which is odd because there are lots of them working in Erbil.”

For those Mosul refugees without family or friends in Kurdistan, home will be the United Nations High Commission on Refugees-run Hazer camp — a giant patch of desert fast filling up with blue-and-white tents. Many are digging in for the long haul.

Yusuf Abd al-Aziz has opened a small shop selling sweets and snacks to children inside the camp. “This is going to be a long war,” he says, “and I have to build a life, because there will be nothing to go back to.”

Other religious minorities who have fled Mosul are just as scared as the Shia. Ali Haider, a Shabak or ethnic-Kurdish Shia, fled the village of Ali Arash when Peshmerga and ISIS insurgents traded fire earlier this week. The village is now well defended by Peshmerga positions but its population has fled. “I did not want my family to wait there till the next attack came,” he said, “and I have no doubt that it will come.”

ISIS insurgents have not carried out killings of minorities, but some shrines and emblems of Mosul’s secular culture have been targeted, leading to a large-scale exodus of minorities. Though some return occasionally for business, refugees spoke of a city partitioned by communal hate.

Sunnis have their own fears. Ala Bashar Mahmood, who ran a shop in Mosul, left the city on Friday after Iraqi forces bombed insurgent positions on its fringes. “I’m not as afraid of ISIS as I am of the Iraqi army because they will make all Sunnis pay for their defeat by the dasht,” he said.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 9:34:23 AM |

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