Iraq: Families Escaping Western Mosul Describe Life Under Siege

Iraq Mosul internally displaced people

Giulio Piscitelli

The battle for Mosul is taking a staggering toll on the people of Iraq’s second largest city, especially those still trapped inside western Mosul where ongoing fighting continues to result in high numbers of civilian casualties. The patients who make it to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities report that water and food are running low, that the few supplies available are extremely expensive, and that access to health care is almost impossible. These patients are the lucky ones who managed to escape, but there are still some 100,000 people in western Mosul, trapped in an area of just a few square kilometers in the old town, short on food, water, and the most basic medical supplies. Here, families who fled the war-torn area recount their experiences in their own words.

"We had to leave. We had no choice," says Kareema. "By the end, we were eating grass." She is one of many thousands of civilians who have risked their lives in recent months to escape western Mosul. This part of the city, on the bank of the Tigris river, has been ravaged by relentless fighting since Iraqi forces moved in to recapture it from the Islamic State group in February 2017. Kareema now lives in eastern Mosul, staying with a relative who works in Al Taheel Hospital, opened by MSF in March to provide surgical and emergency care.

Kareema used to work as a teacher. Her husband, Said, took occasional jobs as a laborer. Today the thought of a job—any job—seems like a dream for Kareema and many others in the city. The past few months have been all about survival by any means.

A Desperate Flight

"The intensity of the fighting made the situation in western Mosul untenable for us," says Said. "Whether it was an army rocket or an IS bomb, it always seemed to fall on our heads." Escaping wasn’t easy. At first, Kareema and Said managed to move just a few kilometers away, to another neighborhood in the same part of the city. It offered temporary shelter, but it was only a matter of days before this area, too, became engulfed in the conflict. They stuck it out for 24 more days until they had no choice but to move again.

After a few days hiding in makeshift accommodations, they set out on foot in the early morning, finally managing to reach a safe area outside the combat zone. When they arrived at a camp for displaced people, they were separated: Kareema was sent to the women and children’s area of the camp, Said to the men’s area. But after 12 hours they were reunited and allowed to make their way to a relative’s house in eastern Mosul.

Kareema and Said’s story is not unusual. Many of the patients treated by MSF at Al Taheel Hospital are from western Mosul. Quite often, the first thing they do on arriving in the eastern part of the city is seek medical care. Some have wounds that have not been treated or have become infected; others have been hit by shrapnel.

"There Were 50 of Us Living in the Same House"

Hassan, a former veterinarian, fled western Mosul in late April with his wife, Mayssam, and their three daughters, Jouri, Ghazial, and Areej. Every morning, Mayssam would dig out her only pan and fry a little tomato paste, diluted in the little cooking oil they had left. "It was the last oil we had and I knew I could not buy any more," she says. "A bottle used to cost 1,000 dinars [about 86 cents USD] and now the price was 30,000 [about $25] on the black market. But that’s not even the point: it was simply no longer available. You may have had money but there was nothing left to buy."

"There were 50 of us living in the same house, in just 100 square meters [about 1,000 square feet]. We ran out of food and drinking water. In the earlier period, we had flour so we could make bread. But later on, we didn’t even have flour. The power supply was cut off a long time ago. Even the water supply was cut off. We had to go to fetch water from the well with shelling and gunfire going on around us. But the well was on the other side of the city, far from the house, so we’d carry as much as we could."

Hassan and Mayssam had two candles for light, as the electricity had long since been cut off. The family used to huddle together in one room so as to use just one candle at a time and make them last as long as possible.

But they had one stroke of luck, says Mayssam: they never had major health issues. "If we had, we knew we would have had nowhere to go." According to Mayssam, the entire population of the besieged area depends on a few nurses, who move from house to house during the short, infrequent lulls in fighting, traveling without any equipment and with a completely inadequate supply of drugs. 

Hassan’s main concern now is for the many family members they have left behind in western Mosul. "We have uncles, cousins, and friends there," says Hassan. "They are in the same desperate situation we were in. No food, no water, no medicines. We are still in touch with them by phone."

Despite their ordeal, both families are determined to go back to western Mosul once the fighting has finished, despite conditions in the war-torn region. "We are planning to go back there once it’s over," says Kareema. "It will be fine once we have water and electricity again."

More Testimony from Mosul: "There are No Heroes in This Story, Only Victims"