MOSUL • As the battle to retake Iraq's Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group drew to an end yesterday, dozens of women and their children emerged exhausted and grief-stricken from the ruins.
Around 15 women and children huddled on a shaded pavement out of the scorching sun at the edge of the Old City, as automatic weapons were fired and mortar rounds resounded inside.
Iraqi forces fighting ISIS had taken them from the Al-Maidan area inside the city's historic centre, where militants made their last stand.
One mother in her 20s crouched silently against a wall, dressed in a black robe and light blue scarf. Suddenly, she doubled up on the pavement and begged the nearest soldier to listen to her distress. Only an hour earlier, she lost her seven-year-old son in a bombardment, just as she and her family prepared to leave the Old City after months of hiding from the militants.
"There was nothing I could do," she said, her face distorted with grief as her daughter tried to wipe away her tears. "Don't cry, Mummy," said the 10-year-old, whose burgundy dress was drenched in her little brother's blood.
Fatima, a woman in her 50s, burst into tears recounting her family's ordeal over the past four months: They hid "almost without food or water" in a basement watched by the militants, she said.
They emerged when their street seemed to have been retaken by Iraqi forces, seeing the sky for the first time in weeks as they hurried out of the area towards freedom. But a sniper hit Fatima's brother as they fled, and she has not heard from him since.
Iraqi forces yesterday battled the last ISIS fighters inside Mosul, and retook the city after three years of militant rule.
Around 250 displaced people arrived from the Old City last Saturday alone, an employee of a local non-governmental organisation said. "A quarter are wounded, mostly by mortar rounds or sniper fire from militants targeting fleeing civilians," the employee added.
Among the women, some watch out for their men, several of whom are being screened by Iraqi fighters tasked with making sure no militant escapes among the fleeing civilians. But others, already widows, no longer have anyone to wait for.
Soldiers and first aid workers handed out biscuits, water and orange juice to the children, many of whom were dehydrated.
Among the women who have fled their homes, those without relatives to stay with will be directed towards one of the camps for the displaced around the city.
Around 915,000 residents have fled from their homes since the start of the battle for Mosul in October last year, the United Nations said, including 700,000 who have yet to return.
Not far off, Samira, a mother in her 20s, held close her two daughters, terrified and covered in dirt. She cradled her last born, a motionless baby with a grey complexion.
ISIS "would beat us as soon as we tried to leave. And outside, there was bombardment. It was terrifying", Samira said. Just then, her infant started crying, much to the relief of onlooking aid workers.