Fleeing families pour into U.N. camp as Iraqi forces try to push deeper into Mosul
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
A firefighter works to extinguish an oil well set ablaze by fleeing Islamic State fighters in Qayyarah, Iraq, on Nov. 9.(Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
A peshmerga fighter peers through curtains as he and other Kurdish soldiers move into a new house in Bashiqa, Iraq, on Nov. 9.(Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images)
A peshmerga fighter looks for militants as he and his team move between buildings in Bashiqa.(Odd Andersen / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces react as they watch Donald Trump give a speech after winning the U.S. presidential election. They were taking a rest in the village of Arbid on the southern outskirts of Mosul on Nov. 9 during the operation to retake Mosul from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi police try to pull a body from a mass grave they discovered in the Hamam Alil area on Nov. 7 after they recaptured the area from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish peshmerga soldiers fire artillery at Islamic State positions in Bashiqa, Iraq, on Nov. 7.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Iraqi forces patrol the Gogjali district of Mosul a day after it was liberated from Islamic State.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Families flee Gogjali after the area was liberated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A girl waves a white flag as she and her family leave Gogjali.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi special forces continue to clear homes in Gogjali on Nov. 2, 2016, after the area was liberated.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi special forces Lt. Col Ali Hussein Fadil and his men continue to clear the Gogjali district.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi troops patrol Gogjali.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi army soldiers warm themselves near the Qayyarah air base, south of Mosul, on Tuesday.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Displaced people who fled from Islamic State-held territory sit outside a mosque guarded by Iraqi soldiers in Shuwayrah, south of Mosul, on Tuesday.(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Members of the Iraqi counter-terrorism service drive near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edges of Mosul, tightening the noose as the offensive to retake the Islamic State group stronghold entered its third week on Sunday.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service take shelter after a mortar shell hit nearby near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edges of Mosul, as they advance towards Iraq’s last remaining Islamic State stronghold on Monday.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Section grimaces in pain as he receives medical treatment after clashes on Monday with Islamic State militants near the village of Bazwaya, on the eastern edge of Mosul.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
A militia fighter prepares to go into battle with his phone and bullets.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Popular mobilization units are helping to clear villages southwest of Mosul, Iraq. On Sunday, they launched mortar rounds a little more than a mile from Islamic State fighters who continued to resist their advance on the city.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militiamen chant before going into battle alongside Iraqi army forces as they fight against Islamic State near Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militiamen near the village of Zarqa stand by as mortars are launched at Islamic State fighters near Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The popular mobilization units received the Iraqi government’s blessing to join the battle that could break Islamic State’s grip in the country.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Militias known as popular mobilization units fighting near Mosul are made up mostly of Shiite Muslims.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
In the village of Faziliya, recently liberated from Islamic State, Abdul Gafur, 38, embraces his brother Mohammad Abdul Gafur, 40. The two had not seen each other since Islamic State forces took control of the village more than two years ealier.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Business is brisk at the barbershops in Faziliya after Kurdish forces retook control from Islamic State militants. A bodyguard stands by.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Peshmerga, or Kurdish fighters, rest after a recent battle.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The remains of a bomb factory can be seen in the village of Faziliya, recently liberated from Islamic State control.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
A member of the Iraqi armed forces kisses a local boy after Iraqi forces entered the town of Shura, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, Iraq. Iraqi troops approaching Mosul from the south advanced into Shura on Saturday after a wave of U.S.-led airstrikes and artillery shelling against Islamic State positions inside the town.(Marko Drobnjakovic / AP)
Iraqi families, who already had been displaced by the ongoing operation by Iraqi forces against jihadists of the Islamic State group, flee Mosul. Iraqi paramilitary forces launched an operation to cut the Islamic State group’s supply lines between its Mosul bastion and neighboring Syria.(Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty Images)
Walid Abdel Nabih, 28, from Nasiriya and a father of four, moves through passageways created by Islamic State to prevent detection by drones. On the eastern front in the fight for Mosul, an Iraqi special forces unit waits for next phase of the fight to clear Islamic State operatives from Mosul.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi special forces member rides in the turret of a humvee with a Shiite religious banner flying behind him as he patrols Bartella, Iraq.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
As many Iraqis are returning home, others are fleeing the fighting in villages surrounding Mosul. At Camp JJadh, 3,000 people arrived in the past week, but many more are expected as the battle for Mosul continues. New arrivals line up for food, provide by the World Food Program.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Children play in a dismantled car in the village of Hurriya, where fighting between Islamic State and Iraqi forces has caused many families to leave over the past months. The risk of unexploded weapons is still a concern for many in the area.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Soldiers drive through the town of Qayyarah, heavily damaged in the fighting in August and again this past week as Islamic State was driven out of town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Sienna Moqtar and her daughter decorate her brother’s grave with rocks. He died last week in the final days of Islamic State in Qayyarah. The bodies of two infant nephews are buried at the right.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Ibrahim Atea Ahmed, left and Daham Ahmed survived the Islamic State attack, but their town was left in bad shape. Oil fires continue to burn, set by militants as a cover from air attacks.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Residents wait for food and water to be handed out, but very little was distributed. The water is not fit to drink in the town.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Iraqi soldiers head for the front line.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi fighter takes a position on top of a vehicle as smoke rises on the outskirts of the Qayyarah area, 35 miles south of Mosul, during an operation against Islamic State.(BULENT KILIC / AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from an area near the Iraqi town of Nawaran, northeast of Mosul, as Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters march down a dirt road during the ongoing operation to retake the city from Islamic State.(SAFIN HAMED / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces raise an Iraqi flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul, Iraq.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces raise an Iraqi flag after retaking Bartella, outside Mosul, Iraq.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
The commander of Iraq Special Forces Lt. Gen Abdul Ghani al-Asadi during an interview on the Bartila front line, after the city was liberated from Islamic State militants.(AHMED JALIL / EPA)
Iraqi Special Forces take up position in Bartila front line, after the city was liberated from Islamic State militants.(AHMED JALIL / EPA)
Iraqi soldiers ride in a truck advancing through the desert on the banks of the Tigris River toward the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire rockets from a mobile launcher near the town of Bashiqa, about 25 kilometers northeast of Mosul, on Oct. 20, 2016.(Safid Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces advances with his unit toward the city of Mosul, on Oct. 20, 2016.(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)
A villager walks on a bare street as smoke from oil fires nearby turn the sky black in the Qayyarah area, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 19, 2016.(Yasin Akgul / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi soldiers look on as smoke rises from the Qayyarah area south of Mosul on Oct. 19, 2016, as Iraqi forces take part in an operation against Islamic State to retake Mosul.(YASIN AKGUL / AFP/Getty Images)
A man takes a selfie in front of a fire from oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area south of Mosul on Oct. 19, 2016, during an operation by Iraqi forces against Islamic State to retake Mosul.(YASIN AKGUL / AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi sniper wearing his camouflage in the village of Bajwaniyah village, about 30 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 18, 2016.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from an explosion as Iraqi forces retake the village of Bajwaniyah from Islamic State on their way to Mosul.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
People abandon their homes during clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants fleeing Mosul on Oct. 18, 2016.(Associated Press)
Iraqi soldiers inspect a tunnel in a building in the recaptured village of Shaquoli, about 35 kilometers east of Mosul, on Oct. 18, 2016.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands amid the rubble of a destroyed building on Oct. 18, 2016, in the village of Shaqouli, east of Mosul, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State group.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish security forces take cover in the fight to capture Khazer, about 30 kilometers east of Mosul, on Oct. 17, 2016.(Associated Press)
A man carries a baby at a refugee camp in Syria’s Hasakeh province for Iraqi families who fled fighting in the Mosul area on Oct. 17, 2016.(Delil Souleiman / AFP/Getty Images)
Lt. Col. Ali Hussein, right, addresses Iraqi security forces leading a government offensive that began Monday to oust Islamic State from the city of Mosul, the extremist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq.(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)
An Iraqi police officer inspects his weapon at the Qayyarah military base, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul, on Oct. 16, 2016, amid preparations for the offensive to retake the city from Islamic State.(Ahmad Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces head north toward Mosul on Monday, part of the operation to retake the city from Islamic State.(Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire a mortar shell from Mount Zardak.(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images)
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