In secret phone calls, Mosul residents tell of being afraid to leave their homesDecember 14, 2016
ERBIL // As night falls in Mosul, Ahmed is glad to have made it through another day. His house in the Fasalea neighbourhood is near the front line that winds through the eastern districts of the city, putting him at risk of becoming yet another civilian to fall victim to the battle.
"Both Daesh and the military are hitting civilians. We are surrounded by Daesh, but the military doesn’t know in which houses the enemy is hiding," says Ahmed over the phone.
So far, Ahmed and his family have managed to escape injury. A missile slammed into the street in front of his uncle’s house in the district of Zuhor, damaging the building and the family car, but none of his relatives were harmed.
An increasing number of Mosul residents are not so lucky. In the week ending on December 11 alone, 685 civilians were reported to have been wounded by the fighting – a third more than during the previous week, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.The real figure is almost certainly higher, as most of those in areas still under ISIL control do not make it into the statistics. The United Nations also estimates that at least 332 civilians died last month in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital.
The extremists have prevented residents from leaving the city, and every neighbourhood the military pushes into is fully inhabited. Around a million people are estimated to still be living in Iraq’s second largest city.
Hiding amongst the population, ISIL fighters are proving an elusive foe. The US-led coalition fighting the extremists is reluctant to deploy its aircraft or artillery to weaken ISIL defences, only striking when it believes the risk of collateral casualties is low.
Yet this precaution has not been enough to avoid civilian deaths, residents say.
"Yesterday there was a big fight, but the [coalition bombardment] didn’t hit Daesh. It hit the locals, and more than forty people died," says Hamad, who lives in Mosul’s Al Quds neighbourhood.
Al Quds – which is still held by ISIL – lies next to districts that have been liberated by Iraqi special forces, and the fighting is now on Hamad’s doorstep.
"Our situation is desperate. We are afraid of being shot at by both sides," he says.
With ample time to prepare for battle, ISIL is able to dodge air strikes by rapidly shifting positions, according to Hamad.
"Daesh took up positions in the houses on the main road, and connected them by punching holes in the walls. When they are targeted by air strikes, they move to a different house, so nothing happens to them," he says.
To stop locals from passing on the co-ordinates of their positions to the Iraqi military, ISIL fighters are merciless with anyone caught in possession of a mobile phone.
"If they saw me with a phone, they would not ask me who I was calling, they would shoot me immediately," says Saad, who lives in the Wahda district that lies close to the Tigris river. Like all the men interviewed by The National, his identity has been protected by the use of an alias.
In ISIL’s radical world view, residents who refuse to retreat with the extremists when the military takes over their neighbourhood become enemies and legitimate targets. Hamad says the insurgents in his area declared over the mosque’s loudspeakers that civilians in government-controlled districts are unbelievers, and deserve to be killed.