Islamic State is killing civilians, but these Mosul residents still won’t flee
Yasser Mahmoud carried a white flag, along with a small supply of rice, bread and water, as he returned to this city under siege.
The 35-year-old photographer had talked with friends who’d fled to displaced persons camps, and he found their stories of long lines for food and supplies alarming.
“If you need to do anything, you have to wait in a line,” he said of the camps, which have expanded and multiplied since troops entered the city last week.
So as Mosul empties — more than 49,000 have fled the city of 1.2 million since the offensive began last month — another stream of people skirt the gunfire, mortar blasts and suicide attacks as they trudge to neighboring villages for supplies and medicine, then wade back into the mayhem, carrying white flags and shopping bags as they head home.
Staying is risky. Islamic State militants have executed 40 civilians in the city, hanging victims’ bodies on electrical poles, according to the United Nations. The army has advanced to several neighborhoods beyond Zahra in eastern Mosul, but only moved forward about half a mile this weekend, according to special forces commanders.
Shamdasani said militants are reportedly stockpiling large amounts of ammonia and sulfur in the city, placing them among civilians for possible use as chemical weapons. Attackers with explosive belts are being deployed in the alleyways of Old Mosul, she said, and women have been abducted and “distributed” to fighters or told they will be used to accompany militant convoys.
Mosul taxi driver Abdul Monhan Faris, 26, was in his garage having breakfast Thursday when a mortar struck, killing him. Faraz Munther helped soldiers remove his friend’s body from Zahra.
“Our neighborhood is free, but we have mortars coming from Qadisiya and Tahrir,” he said, referring to adjacent areas of eastern Mosul.
Yasser Mahmoud was among those unwilling or unable to abandon their homes in the face of such perilous urban warfare.
Two weeks ago, Islamic State fighters attacked his house to the west of Zahra in the early morning, breaking down the door, searching his photo studio, raiding the refrigerator and camping out. When they left, Mahmoud went into hiding in Zahra, leaving behind his wife and two children, ages 10 and 6.
His wife doesn’t have a cellphone or Internet access — both banned by Islamic State — so Mahmoud put aside any thought of fleeing. Instead, he waits.
“I still don’t know anything about my family,” he said. “If I did, I might go.”
Ahmed Hassan and his friends also joined the risky caravan to a grocery store from eastern Mosul. Bearded but wearing Reebok track pants and Nike sweatshirts — outlawed brands on the streets of Mosul under Islamic State — they returned home with a single jar of tahini, all they could find on the bare market shelves.
Despite food shortages in the city, Hassan, 30, was reluctant to flee with his three children, ages 3, 2 and 1.
I prefer to die here in my home.
Iraqi civilians who choose to stay in Mosul.
“I don’t want to take my family to the camps,” he said. “They won’t be able to stand it.”
But if the violence continues, he said, they may reconsider.
“It’s been 11 days since our neighborhood was freed, and they’re still mortaring,” said Hishan Mohammed, 24, a local barber.
The mortar and sniper attacks have shaken the already-chaotic lives of those who live in Mosul. Shops and street markets were still shuttered in Zahra on Saturday. But many left their gated row houses with children in tow to visit neighbors and shop in nearby villages.
Hosam Gadban, 35, left the city with his six children for two days last week, squatting in an abandoned home just east of the city in the village of Gogjali. But without electricity or running water, Gadban said it was “horrible.” He can’t imagine all of them living in a tent and has no intention of leaving, even after their front window was struck by bullets, their house hit by mortar rounds Saturday.
“I prefer to die here in my home,” he said.
His 11-year-old daughter, Iman Gadban, wanted to leave.
“I’m scared. I want to go to a safe place,” she said.
Faraj Saraj, 33, caught a ride out of eastern Mosul in a Humvee, in search of medicine with his 10-year-old daughter, Nasreen. She had been sick to her stomach, a frequent problem since Islamic State stopped treating the tap water, he said.
The sheep trader found help at an Iraqi army field clinic at the edge of Mosul. Soldiers greeted Nasreen, handing her medicine that she clutched close to her pink plaid dress.
Other families passed on their way out of the city. But Saraj said he was not ready to give up on Mosul.
“We are worried about going to the camps,” he said. “It’s been overcrowded. It will be a while before they let us back in.”
If they did leave, he said, it would be difficult to get permission to return to Mosul once their neighborhood near Zahra is freed.
And so, as gunfire crackled, he led his ill daughter back around a dirt barrier at the edge of the city on the treacherous trek home.
Iraqi troops try to help civilians who want to stay and those bent on leaving, Lt. Col. Mohammed Tamimi said from his command post in an abandoned house in Zahra. They help transport those fleeing, but also ensure those staying have ample food and water, he said.
“We are not forcing people to stay, but if they want help, we are offering it,” he said.
Other commanders said the presence of civilians in embattled neighborhoods has complicated the fight to wrestle Mosul from Islamic State.
While some residents pass along helpful information to the troops , others aid and shelter the militants, said Lt. Col. Ali Hussein Fadil.
“Some families will open their doors for fighters to move,” he said. One woman was seen baking bread on the roof of a house this week as Islamic State snipers inside her home fired at the army.
“Because of the civilians, our advances slowed,” said Capt. Mohammed Ibrahim, hovering near patients at the field clinic.
A small crowd of families who had fled were herded into a nearby abandoned house to await transport to a camp for the displaced. Some said they feared being imprisoned at the camps, where the newly arrived are screened and kept behind barbed wire fences.
Samir Sabri had never left Mosul before his grocery run last week.
Two hours later, he and a friend returned carrying plastic bags of chicken, rice, tomatoes and cigarettes — forbidden under Islamic State.
“Our families are there, so we are going back,” said Sabri, 36, who works at a laundry.
Fleeing their neighborhood near Zahra was not an option, said Hassan Mohammed, 36.
“Where would we go?” he wondered
They had already been displaced within the city.
“We left our houses and went to houses where the army told us to stay. But we are not going to the camps,” Sabri said. He said they will wait for the army to free the city. Then they hope to return home.
Some friends with white flags waved from across the dirt road. The pair joined them on their walk back to the city as gunfire rattled and mortar shells landed ahead of them, a column of dark smoke filling the sky.
An Iraqi soldier stopped them.
“Where are you going?” he said.
One of the men pointed toward the smoke.
“OK,” the soldier said. “God be with you.”
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