Families inside Iraq’s Mosul say they are living in fear and desperation as the military operation to retake the city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) pushes on.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the phone from inside Mosul, Abu Yazan, 36, who didn’t want his real name used fearing reprisals from the group, said fleeing the city was “not possible” at this stage.
“There is no way out for us as families. Even if we think about fleeing the city, that is not possible at the time being. We are being held hostages; ISIL took the whole city of Mosul as hostage,” said the father of three children.
Abu Yazan said the only passage that families can take is into neighbouring Syria on a road west of Mosul that cuts through the desert. “I have three children, the youngest is four, and the eldest is 11. I will never risk their lives and cross the desert with them. We might be targeted, we might die of thirst, or even lose our way.”
Since the operation began, Abu Yazan said ISIL “increased the number of fighters in the city and increased security checkpoints as well”, adding the group was “forcing anyone who owns a vehicle to replace their car plate with ones made by ISIL, which read ‘State of Nineveh'”, to reflect the Nineveh governate – of which Mosul is capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
Abu Yazan is one of 1.5 million civilians trapped inside the city. As Iraqi, Kurdish and coalition forces push into the city, international aid agencies have warned of the potential consequences on civilian lives.
“There are real fears that the offensive to retake Mosul could produce a human catastrophe resulting in one of the largest man-made displacement crises in recent years,” William Spindler, spokesman for the United Nation’s aid agency, said.
The UN has estimated as many as one million Iraqis may flee their homes in a matter of weeks.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to ISIL in June 2014 and is currently its last major stronghold in the country. While the advance to take back the city is viewed as a positive step, it poses life-threatening risks for civilians who try to flee from under ISIL’s control or are caught in the crossfire.
Human rights groups predict the city’s civilians may face death, torture, and displacement.
We are trapped. There is no safe place in Mosul... We fear for our lives if the sectarian militias enter Mosul.
Although much of the threat comes from ISIL fighters, human rights organisations have found civilians are also vulnerable to mistreatment by the Iraqi army and the state-sponsored Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU).
The PMU, comprised mostly of Shia militias but also include Sunni groups and others, was officially designated part of the Iraqi armed forces in February 2016, after it took centre stage in the fight against ISIL in 2014.
The militias have been accused of abducting, killing, and torturing civilians in past operations to retake territory from ISIL.
Abu Yazan said residents of Mosul hope PMU fighters “are not allowed to enter the city”.
“We are trapped. There is no safe place in Mosul. We fear random bombing, we fear for our lives if the sectarian militias enter Mosul.”
A recent report released by UK-based rights group Amnesty International detailed the brutality experienced by civilians at the hands of ISIL, PMU, and Iraqi security forces in previous confrontations.
“It is imperative that all the forces involved – Iraqi, Kurdish, and the US-led coalition – do not target civilians and spare no efforts to avoid disproportionate attacks in civilian residential areas, that they ensure that civilians wanting to flee have safe routes to flee,” Donatella Rovera, the senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
According to the UN, about 3.3 million Iraqis, or 10 percent of Iraq’s 33 million population, have been displaced from their homes since the beginning of the crisis in January 2014, when ISIL overran large swaths of the country.
More than one million Iraqis fled between 2006 and 2008 because of the sectarian war in Iraq, following the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003. The Mosul operation is expected to yield another mass exodus of civilians, who are paying the highest price for the conflict.
Abu Yazan said he hopes the military offensive will end as quickly as possible. “It might be the only way that our suffering ends, when the operation is done and the Iraqi army would have control over Mosul.
“We have faith in the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga.”