MOSUL, Iraq – Abu Mohamed stood outside his shrapnel-scarred gate in the eastern Zahra district of Mosul and pointed to where a mortar round had exploded the day before, killing two of his neighbors.
For nine days, the water had been out. Down the street, men queued by a muddy puddle to fill plastic containers from a broken pipe.
At the other end of the road, near where a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle and several buildings two weeks earlier, men gathered last Thursday at the only open store to buy essential supplies. They griped about the sporadic and disorderly government food distributions since Iraqi soldiers had entered the district. No one lingered for long.
Iraqi forces recaptured Abu Mohamed’s neighborhood from ISIS three weeks ago, but the battle for Mosul is far from over.
“It’s not safe to be here, we’re still on the receiving end of a dozen mortars every day,” the 67-year-old retired photographer said, before retreating indoors.
Inside Abu Mohamed’s house it was dim and smelled of kerosene, the curtains drawn across plastic-covered window frames, yellow light coming from an oil lamp. Abu Mohamed pulled back a curtain under the stairs and 12 small children peered out. Given the ongoing bombardment from ISIS fighters, this was the safest place for them, he said.
Since the beginning of November, Iraqi special forces have been slowly fighting their way into Mosul’s eastern suburbs. The city – Iraq’s second largest – has been under ISIS control since June 2014 and its fighters are well entrenched.
Despite the ferocity of the street-by-street fighting, more residents than predicted have remained in their homes. That’s causing challenges for aid agencies, who planned on providing aid once civilians had fled to safe areas. Now humanitarians are scrambling to find ways to deliver aid in an extremely insecure environment.
Before the Mosul offensive began on October 17, aid agencies predicted that up to 200,000 civilians might flee in the first days of the fighting. Six weeks in, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that 72,000 civilians have fled the fighting.
But that figure doesn’t include those civilians who are displaced within Mosul. Many have moved just a few blocks to escape fighting but don’t want to flee the city entirely. Abu Mohamed estimates that every home on his street is hosting up to five other families from nearby districts.
Sandra Black, a communications officer for IOM in the nearby Kurdish city of Erbil, explained that displacement figures only include areas that can be verified by IOM staff. “We can only verify accessible areas and we are really focused on areas that can be reached for services,” she said.
Providing relief under such circumstances is extremely challenging for U.N. agencies, which have security protocols in place to protect staff. So far, they’ve made two emergency food distributions on the eastern outskirts of the city, but at locations between 1 to 4 miles (2 to 6km) from many retaken neighborhoods – an arduous journey for residents that must be undertaken on foot, as the Iraqi army has banned the use of civilian vehicles to try and stop the infiltration of ISIS suicide car bombs.
The Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement has been more active in bringing aid into these neighborhoods, but already several of these distributions have devolved into near riots. Nervy soldiers, wary of the potential for ISIS fighters to mingle with civilians, have fired in the air to disperse thronging crowds.
Despite the risk to its citizens, the Iraqi government – already struggling to cope with over 3 million displaced citizens – has urged Mosul residents not to flee. “Through the media we tell civilians to stay in their homes,” said Major Hazem Kareem, an officer overseeing Iraqi special forces in the adjacent Arbajiyah district.
ISIS fighters have also blocked civilians from fleeing and try to instill fear of the advancing Iraqi forces. Abu Arkan, a 60-year-old former government employee, said of the militants: “If they see someone fleeing, they will kill him.”
He only managed to escape from the Arbajiyah district after enduring 10 days of nearby fighting, he said, and it was with trepidation that his family crossed the Iraqi military’s lines on foot. “Daesh were spreading rumors saying the Shiite militias were coming to rape our wives in front of us and then kill us all,” he said, using a derogatory Arabic term for ISIS. “We had no other sources of information.”
For others, distrust of Iraqi forces, the fear of uncertain screening processes and the prospect of losing all their worldly possessions is enough to keep them at home for now. “If you go to the camps, they say it is no life for people there,” Abu Mohamed said.
This is hardly surprising to Rasha al-Qeedi, a research fellow at Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai. She was born in Mosul, and lived there from 1991 until 2013. She said of its urbane population: “No one who comes from a Mosul neighborhood wants to live in a tent; they wouldn’t survive.” She recounted a recent conversation with an aunt still living in the city who told her, “I’d prefer to die with rubble on top of me than live for one day in a tent.”
But for aid agencies, the realization that Mosul’s residents would rather face danger at home than uncertainty in a camp has come slowly, and now they are racing to adapt. Before the offensive started, the U.N. planned their humanitarian response to take place once people exited conflict areas, said Inger Marie Vennize, head of communications for the World Food Program (WFP) in Erbil. “We are trying to adjust our response accordingly because much more people than we initially thought have actually chosen to stay in their homes,” she said.
The WFP is one of the U.N. agencies implementing a Rapid Response Mechanism to provide aid to Mosul’s neediest civilians. “My biggest concern is that security will not permit us to get access to people,” said Vennize.
As the military operation continues, security is likely to remain tenuous in retaken areas. “As the pressure builds on ISIS in Mosul, the situation is going to get more desperate for civilians,” said Jasper Hadman, a program manager for Rise Foundation, which produces humanitarian reports from front-line areas in Mosul. “We could still see massive displacement – it’s too early to say. The humanitarian community is already facing a serious challenge in dealing with the numbers that have already left.”
Back in the Zahra neighborhood, Maher, a private sector worker, was considering his family’s future. “If the situation goes on like this – without water and without food – people will be obliged to go to the camps,” he said. “We hope this is not the case. This is not what we want.”