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Fleeing families pour into U.N. camp as Iraqi forces try to push deeper into Mosul

Thousands of men, women, and children fleeing violence in Mosul and surrounding villages arrive by dump trucks and buses at UNHCR Camp Hassansham.
Thousands of men, women, and children fleeing violence in Mosul and surrounding villages arrive by dump trucks and buses at UNHCR Camp Hassansham.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Families made their way east Saturday, past sniper fire, mortar rounds and the bodies of neighbors, to a new camp set up for those displaced by the battle to drive Islamic State out of Mosul.

They arrived in dump trucks and on foot, carrying their belongings in large bags, wrapped in bedding and tarps.

Relatives were waiting outside the camp’s chain-link fence.

Waeed Ahmed Hussein had not seen his parents and four brothers in almost three years, since the extremists seized the Iraqi city and their nearby village of Gogjali, and he fled.

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When Hussein, 32, spotted his father in the camp’s screening area, he rushed over to kiss the elderly man’s hands through the fence.

“Uncle, uncle!” cried his 6-year-old nephew, Idris, sprinting out of the gate to hug him.

Guards ushered the boy back behind the fence, as Hussein wiped away tears.

Families reunite in refugee camp after escaping fighting in Mosul. Video by Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times

The Hassan Sham camp, about 20 miles east Mosul, opened Friday to help handle the exodus of civilians after government troops battled their way into the city this week.

More than 8,000 people had fled by Saturday, bringing the total number displaced since the offensive began to about 30,000, according to United Nations estimates.

Humanitarian groups had warned before the offensive began nearly three weeks ago that as many as a million people could be displaced, and that camps were unprepared because of lack of funding.

In addition to Hassan Sham, the U.N. refugee agency is building 10 more camps, but only half are ready to receive people.

Hassan Sham now houses about 4,000 people and can accommodate 7,000 more. But with the volume of families streaming in, officials expect they will soon have to build another camp nearby.

More than 200 families arrived Saturday and more than 600 on Friday, said Sadiq Mohammed, deputy camp manager. The Khazir camp up the road was already full of those displaced from eastern villages.

“The influx is massive and ongoing,” said Frederic Cussigh, a senior field coordinator for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Iraqi special forces are locked in a bitter battle for eastern neighborhoods of Mosul, commanders said.

“The [counter-terrorism forces] are fighting inside houses, room by room,” said Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, who visited the eastern front Saturday.

Federal police on Saturday defeated Islamic State militants south of Mosul, raising the Iraqi flag in Hamam Ali, but they had yet to fully secure the town, Ibrahim said.

At least 20,000 people had been living there when Islamic State took control, and residents said the militants forced more in from surrounding communities after the offensive started.

“We need to clear the car bombs outside and take care of the people,” Ibrahim said.

For civilians caught in the fighting, the route to safety is a perilous one.

Hussein’s older brother, Saad Ahmed Hussein, said that when the family fled their village east of Mosul on Saturday morning, they were targeted by Islamic State snipers and mortar fire.

Iraqi forces had freed the village, but militants sneaked back in using tunnels near the graveyard, he said.

Saad Ahmed Hussein, 34, said he saw a neighbor and his two young children killed in a mortar strike. He also found the bodies of three women killed by mortar rounds. He buried them.

“Islamic State fighters use civilians as human shields. In some cases, Islamic State fighters will go on a roof of a house, and the Iraqi army will avoid targeting them” because of the civilians inside, he said.

He tried to persuade his eldest brother to leave with the rest of the family, but he has several small children, including a toddler. “He said, ‘I prefer to die here,’” Saad Ahmed Hussein said.

Now he is receiving phone calls from friends in Mosul’s eastern Intisar neighborhood saying they too plan to flee, even if they have to live in small tents.

Yunus Qasim, 21, said he managed to escape the west of Mosul with his family this week by pretending to visit an uncle on the east side of the city. But he then found himself dodging bullets that shattered the windows of his uncle’s house Saturday.

“They fired at us,” Qasim said of the militants as he stood outside his new tent at Hassan Sham. “There were mines and suicide car bombs. We saw jets bombing Islamic State positions. We were safe, but other people got injured.”

Qasim said he never received the leaflets that Iraqi forces dropped from aircraft before the offensive urging Mosul residents to hunker down in their homes. Instead, he received Islamic State leaflets warning of the Iraqi army’s impending arrival and saying, “If you stay in your houses, you will die.”

Um Yasir, 36, fled Mosul with her two sons, ages 20 and 17. She said she had been afraid to send them to school or to the mosques for the last two years, in case they were brainwashed by Islamic State.

Now, she worried, “What’s their future going to be?”

She asked to be identified by a traditional nickname, to protect relatives still in Mosul.

As families poured into Hassan Sham on Saturday, Kurdish troops directed them to the fenced-off screening area where they were searched. Then they were assigned numbered tents and departed to find them, clutching slips of paper with their new addresses written in Arabic.

Mohammed Ahmed Hussein, 36, one of the four Hussein brothers at the camp, said he was forced to turn over a precious videotape, which he signed for.

It was a video of his wedding six years ago. “I hope it will be returned to me, because it was a good memory,” he said, smoking his first Gauloise cigarette in years.

After the search was over, his father, Ahmed Hussein, rushed into the camp and down the main gravel road, holding the slip of paper listing the three tents assigned to the family.

“I’m so tired and thirsty. I just want to reach my place,” the 75-year-old said.

Rounding a corner, he found their place at the camp’s edge.

His wife sank onto a tarp outside the tents, despondent about not getting to see her son who had escaped earlier to Irbil.

Suddenly he reappeared and sat down beside her. Camp security had allowed him in. She hugged him close, repeating: “I didn’t think I would see you before I died.”

New arrivals at the camp complained about a lack of food, water, bedding and latrines. They worried about tents filling up, and where their children would go to school.

But many of the children seemed oblivious to their parents’ struggles, exploring the tents, playing ball with stones and hide-and-seek in the latrines.

All the horrors their parents described, they had also endured. It made the stark camp seem more bearable.

As little Idris said, “It’s better than dying.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf


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