Trapped civilians dodge bombs, gunfire to flee

KHAZIR (Iraq) • When he saw Iraqi forces approaching Mosul from afar, Mr Abu Fahad yanked the white headscarf off his father's head, turned it into makeshift flag and decided to sneak out.

The Iraqi managed to herd around 40 members of his extended family out of the neighbourhood of Samah "by advancing quietly, hiding under stairs, sidling along walls".

On Saturday, he and his relatives were receiving assistance at a camp in Khazir, a Kurdish-controlled area further east, where displaced civilians are arriving in growing numbers.

Most are from Mosul's outskirts, but Mr Abu Fahad and a few others were able to find a gap in the tight seal the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had imposed on the city.

Two weeks after Iraq launched its largest military operation in years to retake Mosul, the last major Iraqi hub in the militants' shrinking "caliphate", forces reached the edge of the city.

Now, the million-plus people believed to be trapped inside have to survive fire from both sides to flee the brutality of ISIS, which has ruled them for more than two years.

Mr Abu Sara fled the same neighbourhood, dodging gunfire, bombs, mortar rounds and strikes from the US-led coalition, such was his desperation to leave what many who escaped describe as an open-air prison.

"There were snipers shooting, mortars crashing down, it was hell," said the 34-year-old. "We walked several miles, taking with us only the clothes we were wearing and white flags we waved the entire way."

Sitting next to him, his pregnant cousin Umm Mustafa said she could hardly believe she had finally escaped. Despite the cold filling the tent that was their new home in Khazir, she was all smiles. "We're coming back to life," said the mother of seven.

Mr Abu Ahmed said that "life had stopped" for many of those who remained in Mosul after ISIS proclaimed its "caliphate" in June 2014.

"All the factories stopped working, there was no work and no money," said the 60-year-old, who worked in the oil sector before the militants took over.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'Trapped civilians dodge bombs, gunfire to flee'. Print Edition | Subscribe