HASANSHAM, Iraq – Bulldozers worked under the light of a full moon in Hasansham in northern Iraq on Sunday night, rushing to level the earth for an enormous new displacement camp. The impetus was the revving of the engines nearby – a huge military convoy was preparing to advance towards ISIS-held Mosul, 16 miles (25km) westwards.
Iraq’s second-largest city has been under the control of the so-called Islamic State for the past two and a half years, and now the military operation to retake the city is under way. The U.N. estimates that up to 1.5 million civilians are still trapped in Mosul and fears that the battle to retake ISIS’s Iraq capital could cause the largest humanitarian crisis in a generation. Relief organizations anticipate that up to 1 million could flee the fighting, but warn that if they stay in their homes, their situation could be even more dire.
In the nearby completed section of Hasansham camp, row upon neat row of tents stood dust-covered and empty, awaiting the expected influx of civilians. Up to 200,000 could flee just in the first days of the offensive, according to Norwegian Refugee Council media adviser Karl Schembri, but existing camps like Hasansham can only accommodate 60,000 people at present.
If the predicted numbers of civilians flee from Mosul and its surrounding villages, emergency relief services will be stretched beyond capacity.
The scale of the military operation by far overshadows the humanitarian response operation in terms of size, funding and government backing, says Tom Robinson, director of Rise Foundation, an organization that monitors displacement in Iraq’s Nineveh province.
“What everyone has accepted is that this response is going to be focused on emergency shelter rather than fully established camps built to good standards,” he said.
When and how people flee Mosul depends on the duration and intensity of the military operation, and how the military facilitates safe passage from areas under ISIS control, Robinson says.
Messaging from the Iraqi government to civilians inside Mosul and other ISIS-controlled areas has been mixed on whether to flee from ISIS or stay put. Leaflets air-dropped over Nineveh province in the past months urge civilians to stay away from ISIS positions. In a densely populated place like Mosul, this may be difficult to do while remaining in the city.
But exiled mayor of Mosul, Hussein Ali Hachem, is telling civilians to stay in their homes regardless of the proximity of fighting. “People will stay put, for three, four months, even if there are no services,” he said last month during a visit to the recently recaptured town of Qayyarah.
One resident of Qayyarah, 18-year-old Idris Mohamed, explained why he stayed at home during the Iraqi forces’ operation to retake the city in August. “We stayed inside once the fighting started,” he said. “Security forces told us on the television to remain inside.”
Even if civilians want to flee, ISIS is preventing some from escaping. In the recently retaken town of Haj Ali last month, Wisem Shonet sat in a wheelchair in a temporary displacement camp, his shattered leg elevated. “Daesh caught me trying to flee,” the 25-year-old former police officer said of a failed escape attempt, using the Arabic term for ISIS. “Then they ran my leg over with a car as punishment.”
Recent reports out of Mosul suggest ISIS is shooting civilians who try and leave. “It’s going to be very, very hard for civilians to make the safety points to escape,” said Rasha al-Qeedi, a research fellow from Mosul at Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre in Dubai.
“No one’s going to leave – if 1,000 manage to escape that’s very good.” The geography of the city – with easily guarded choke points – will enable the militants to prevent civilians from fleeing, she says.
The U.N. warned in a statement on Sunday that civilians remaining behind in Mosul could be in extreme danger. “I am extremely concerned for the safety of up to 1.5 million people living in Mosul who may be impacted by military operations to retake the city from [ISIS],” said U.N. Aid chief Stephen O’Brien. “Tens of thousands of Iraqi girls, boys, women and men may be under siege or held as human shields. Thousands may be forcibly expelled or trapped between the fighting lines.”
Those who have recently escaped from areas under ISIS control tell of acute food shortages and a complete breakdown of social services. “We were starving,” said Aisha Saleh, a mother who fled on foot from her village of Ganous with her seven children. “Grinding up wheat to make flour was the only food we had for months.” Staying in a temporary displacement camp in Haj Ali, she said she was eager to return to her village as soon as it was liberated.
The desire to return home and the Iraqi government’s emphasis that civilians should not flee means displacement may be more localized and temporary than some of the U.N.’s more dire estimates, Rise Foundation’s Robinson predicts. “People are so keen to get back to their villages as soon as possible,” he said.
This raises protection concerns as recently recaptured villages are often rigged with booby traps by departing ISIS fighters. “I’ve seen kids playing in fields with Katyusha rockets and grenades lying around, but their families would rather be there than living in a camp,” said Robinson. “What we as humanitarians have to do is make sure there’s informed consent and they know what they are returning to.”
Others who have been living in exile since the ISIS occupation say they are in no hurry to go back. Ali Fazil Abbas fled Mosul in June 2014 and has lived in Harsham displacement camp ever since. “There’s no future for us there now,” the 23-year-old former laborer said of Mosul, wiping a tear from his eye. “My neighbor threatened to kill me and my family, I can’t live next to them again.”
This sentiment was echoed by Muntaha Salih Kalaf, one of 4,000 former Mosul residents in Baharka displacement camp outside of Erbil, whose family is now facing its third winter under canvas. “Our tent is leaking, it’s getting cold at night and we have only these filthy blankets for warmth,” the mother of eight said last week as she picked up crumbs from the floor of her tent. “But I’d rather stay here than ever go back to Mosul. There is nothing for us there.”