Al-Zahra, Mosul – Abu Mohammed’s grandchildren live in near constant darkness now. It has not been safe to go outside for a long time and he keeps the curtains of their home, in eastern Mosul’s al-Zahra district, drawn to provide at least a little protection from shards of glass and shrapnel.
The 12 children spend most of their time huddled together on mattresses underneath the stairs, their skin now unnaturally pale and eyes adjusted to the dim glow of a kerosene lantern.
“It is safe here,” he says gesturing towards them. “Much better than the other places.”
It’s been this way since early November, when Iraqi Special Forces troops drove Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters out as part of the offensive to retake Iraq’s second city from ISIL.
ISIL fighters are gone now, but still hold districts a few streets away, and maintain a regular barrage of mortar fire into al-Zahra. As many as a dozen land on the area each day, sometimes harmlessly, but often not. The previous afternoon, two of Abu Mohammed’s neighbours were killed and nine others injured, while a young girl was fatally wounded as she played on the pavement a few days earlier.
His own home was damaged when an ISIL car bomb detonated nearby, a fortnight ago. It nearly destroyed the two nearest houses and blew out windows for a block, most of which are now replaced by sheets of plastic.
Abu Mohammed, a quietly friendly 67-year-old with a clipped grey beard, picks up the lamp and checks a pot of rice simmering on his gas stove. His family have not had much more than that for days, but he’s lucky even to have fuel to cook with. Outside, a group of residents plead for water and ambulances.
This is life for many in the Mosul neighbourhoods that were taken by the Iraqi army. Concerned that a mass flight from the city could cause a humanitarian crisis, the Iraqi government urged residents not to flee, dropping leaflets instructing them to “stay at home and not to believe rumours spread by ISIL”.
But seven weeks into the operation, the dangers of this strategy are becoming clear. Civilian casualties are climbing, and even though food is running out, many aid agencies consider distributions so close to the front to be unacceptably risky.
Meanwhile, security forces say they’re unable to fight a well-entrenched and determined enemy at full effectiveness in area with so many non-combatants.
Mosul’s prewar population of around two million makes it several times larger than any previous urban area retaken from ISIL, and aid agencies estimated 200,000 people might flee as security forces closed on the city. As of the end of November, just 82,000 had made it to newly set up camps on the outskirts, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent.
More have been displaced within the city itself, al-Zahra’s residents say their houses are crammed with relatives who have escaped from further inside the city. “Every home on this street has four or five families from elsewhere in Mosul,” Abu Mohammed explained. “My daughter came here with her children from al-Tahrir.”
The dusty breeze-blocks-and-mud roads that make up the working class districts of Mosul’s eastern edge give way to once-affluent areas of larger houses with leafy walled gardens.
Deep ditches and earthworks score the streets, but it has been largely spared the devastation caused to other cities retaken from ISIL, such as Tikrit and Ramadi.
Troops have secured the area, street by street. Searched houses are marked with green spray paint and access routes restricted. The army does not allow cars here, an attempt to prevent one of ISIL’s most devastating weapons: the suicide car bomb. Vehicles left in the streets have been trashed and incorporated into barriers blocking side streets.
The only way to get injured civilians out now is in a hand-drawn cart, says Jasim, 35, a former programmer. It takes 90 minutes to reach the nearest medical station this way.
Meanwhile, Mosul’s remaining residents struggle for the other basics of survival. Water was cut some time ago and, in al-Zahra, youths fill up barrels from the muddy stream of a broken pipe. The only food here, they say, was left in stores from before the fighting.
ISIL’s proximity means aid has been limited in Mosul itself. The World Food Programme (WFP) distributed food twice in November through partners, says spokeswoman Inger Marie Vennize and has warehoused provisions for another 100,000 people, to be given out in coming days, if the security situation is considered acceptable.
But UN personnel privately admit they have been unable to reach many of Mosul’s residents because only a few retaken areas are safe enough to work in. Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement has been more active, but some distributions of food and water have turned into near-riots with soldiers firing into the air to disperse hungry crowds.
When convoys of vehicles move through the area, young boys and youths pursue them on foot, in the usually vain hope that the journey will end in an aid post. Families are growing increasingly desperate. An army-organised distribution of bread and water from the back of a small truck late last week was cancelled after there was only enough for a fraction of those waiting.
But Abu Mohammed says he and his family will not leave for the camps. “There is no life there,” he says, adding that for now, they’ve resolved to wait. “What is there to do?” he asks rhetorically, pausing to scold two of his more daring grandchildren for trying to venture out of the front door. “I sit outside or I sit inside, then I do the other. There’s nothing more.”
Other neighbours – both young and old – agree, emphatically refusing to venture from their homes.
This huge civilian presence means troops tasked with expelling ISIL from Mosul are now unable to use heavier weapons for fear of causing widespread casualties. Brigadier-General Haider Fadhil, 40, a senior Special Forces commander, who has led troops against ISIL elsewhere in Iraq, says fighting through these densely populated districts is an unprecedented challenge.
“The enemy is doing everything to stop us and block us. Our forces have experience of fighting in side streets, in Anbar and Fallujah … The most difficult thing is [operating without harming] the civilians.”
He spoke on the roof of a command centre, where large explosions from the fighting were clearly visible every few minutes. Two French-speaking men in Iraqi uniforms sat in the corner working on a hardened laptop with satellite linkup. American then Australian-accented English radio chatter confirmed the coordinates and direction of an up-armoured vehicle, likely a suicide car bomb.
But the Iraqi brigadier-general said that even air support from American, French and Australian forces has also been reduced lately. “They help us and they’re very good, but they often can’t hit the target because of the civilians. There are still airstrikes, but we can’t use them unless we’re 100 percent sure of the target.”
Another special forces officer, Captain Sarmad al-Saadi, said his men were largely reliant on snipers to deal with ISIL fighters now, preferring to minimise indiscriminate fire, even if it posed a larger risk to themselves.
Despite these precautions, civilians are injured and killed on a daily basis, in many cases targeted by ISIL, as they attempt to flee. Up to 332 people died in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, in November, according to the UN, and the real figure is likely higher, due to difficulty in verifying reports from the area.
Military casualties are mounting, too. An emergency clinic set up in abandoned house in outer al-Samah district sees as many as 50 wounded most days. A majority are non-combatants, usually injured by mortars, bombs and snipers, but soldiers are suffering, too.
Towards sunset one day this week, Humvee after Humvee sped up to the clinic in a trail of dust and discharged a cargo of wounded soldiers, after a car bomb attack near al-Zahra.
Some screamed with pain, others lay silently on stretchers. More than 10 arrived in an hour. Medics say this kind of toll is typical, suggesting attrition rates among even these elite troops are unsustainably high, at a stage of the operation in which security forces are still struggling to push further into Mosul’s suburbs.
But the Iraqi government has shown no sign of changing its policy of encouraging residents to stay and, even if it does, Abu Mohammed and many others are determined to stay in their homes, regardless.