At Mosul front, Iraqis fleeing and returning cross paths
MOSUL, Iraq — The two teenage sisters hid at home for most of the 2 ½ years of rule by the Islamic State group. This week, as fighting engulfed their neighborhood in the northern city of Mosul, Rusul and Doha Ghanem and their family made a run for it.
It took them three days, and they slept in empty houses. Finally, they reached the safety of government-held territory. "We just cannot believe we got out alive," said the 18-year-old Rusul, though her relief was temporarily dampened as troops lined her father and brother up with other men for security checks.
Rusul and her family were among hundreds of dazed men, women and children who fled fighting in their neighborhood of Karama this week after it became a front line in the battle against the Islamic State group, hauling their belongings down a main street in bags and suitcases and on push carts.
On the same street, moving in the opposite direction, were residents who had returned to their homes in the neighboring Quds district, retaken by government forces only a few days ago. At a nearby market, they treated themselves to fresh vegetables, fruit, bread and milk for the first time in weeks.
The avenue exemplifies the multiple directions of a chaotic urban battle that has moved from district to district in eastern Mosul, tearing apart lives and families. The war has juxtaposed heavy destruction and fighting meters away from people trying to rebuild their lives, many of them reduced to destitution and begging for food or money.
The street between the neighborhoods was lined by badly damaged homes riddled by bullet holes. Electrical wires dangled from buildings. Concrete barriers blocked some streets. The body of an IS fighter lay on the side of the street. Later, soldiers dragged another body from inside a nearby house and left it next to the first one.
Residents appeared unperturbed as they walked past the bodies. A few women cursed and spat toward them, and a soldier took a selfie with the bodies, but no one else reacted.
Soldiers carefully looked over carts loaded with food that some Quds residents brought from the market. "Join us for lunch," Sabhan Mahmoud, a 35-year-old government worker, said as he made his way back home.
At the same time, military Humvees sped down the street, and trucks rumbled by carrying ammunition and water to troops on the front line in Karama, some 100-150 meters (yards) away. A Humvee raced out carrying a wounded man on the hood as a soldier fired into the air to clear people from the vehicle's path.
As residents filtered out of Karama, including elderly people in wheelchairs, soldiers frisked the men and assembled them on a side street to run their names through a database of Iraqis linked to IS.
"We suspect everyone of being linked to Daesh, but we focus on the 18-40 age group," said a military intelligence captain at the scene, using the Arabic acronym for IS. "We also screen teenage boys because some of them joined Daesh." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
It's a tense process. The men squatted on the street while female relatives lingered anxiously nearby, sometimes begging soldiers to let the men go, only to be sternly told to wait. Men who finally were released rushed back to their waiting families and hugged their children before resuming their journey to safety at another neighborhood or in camps for the displaced.
The soldiers dealt firmly with the men but were not abusive — except for a senior intelligence officer who lost his temper when a man in his 50s kept asking to be allowed to leave with his family. The officer grabbed him by his jacket, threw his ID on the ground and kicked him repeatedly as his wife and children watched.
"My father, my father," screamed one of his children, a horrified girl of about 12.
Iraqi authorities have told Mosul's estimated million residents to stay put in their homes during the offensive, which began in mid-October. However, many residents have fled for fear of being caught in the crossfire or because they were running out of money and food. Water and power have been out for weeks.
The government's distribution of food and other relief supplies has mostly been chaotic, leaving many without food or heating oil to fend of northern Iraq's bitter winter. The effort has rarely reached areas close to the fighting.
That, on top of months of very little economic activity under IS rule, reduced many of Mosul's poor to destitution.
Women, men and children rush behind any truck that looks like it may have relief supplies. Some have taken to begging for food or money. Many soldiers share their rations with children and give away water.
"We haven't eaten in three days," one teenage girl told a soldier. "Do you have anything you can spare?" asked another.
Residents also frequently approach the soldiers to share information they have on IS movements.
One man, Suliman Salem Ali, told a soldier about busloads of IS fighters rushing between lines. The soldier diligently wrote down the directions.
"Daesh killed men, women and children," Ali, a father of six, said. "They are killing us," he said as he made a gesture with both hands of pulling the trigger of a rifle.
Many Mosul residents have harrowing tales of escaping the fighting or IS rule. Muheeb Hamoudi, a boy of nine, recounts his family's escape like an adventure story, perhaps too young to realize the magnitude of their predicament. As they tried to escape Intissar neighborhood, IS gunmen caught up with them. Everyone ran as fast as they could, but his father and teenage sister were caught.
"I looked back and they were beating them, but we knew later that they were back at our home," he said.
Mohammed Raad, his wife and three small children took three days to reach government-held areas. Along the way, they stayed in deserted homes amid heavy fighting. His 7-month-old, Omran, had no milk for nearly a week, surviving on bread soaked in tea.
"All we need now is some security and some food and it will all be fine," he said.