Escaping IS-held Mosul, residents head into unknown

Edouard Guihaire
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Displaced Iraqi children from Mosul walk in the mud towards refugee camps on March 24, 2017

Bilal Abduljabbar clambers onto the back of an Iraqi army truck with his two teenage children to start the final stage of their escape from war-torn west Mosul.

"Where we came from, there was no water and no food, just fighting," the 43-year-old says. "And where we're going, there's no future."

A rumble of mortar fire resonates in the distance as hundreds of people trudge up a rain-drenched street under a heavy grey sky of smoke and clouds.

Their nightmare of life under the Islamic State group's rule is over. But having escaped Iraq's second city after months of heavy fighting, they are starting a life of displacement and uncertainty.

Iraqi forces launched a vast offensive on October 17 to oust IS from the northern city.

They completed the recapture of eastern Mosul in January and last month launched a renewed assault on the west, under jihadist control since IS seized it in 2014.

Weeks later, some areas prised from the jihadists' grip are a scene of devastation, and the Iraqi government says around 180,000 civilians have escaped the city's west.

The latest escapees walk along a road secured by Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service and lined with buildings pulverised by fighting.

Yassir Ahmed, 35, carries a young child in his arms as he walks, his back bent from fatigue. Others drag metal carts loaded with children or the elderly, their faces lined with stress and fatigue.

In suitcases and plastic bags, they carry the few belongings they were able to grab as they fled. Some are empty handed.

IS "detained us for 15 days and wouldn't let us leave," says a man in a grey tracksuit stained with mud.

"Last night, they retreated under pressure from the security forces. We escaped at about six o'clock this morning."

- Snipers on roofs -

Staying in western Mosul meant living without food, without water and in constant fear of the jihadists.

"There were snipers on a warehouse, shooting at people," says 27-year-old Adel Abdul Karim.

After hours on foot, the escapees reach a bus station on the outskirts of the city, where they wait to board buses and army trucks.

But the situation borders on chaos. Desperate to leave Mosul, the crowd rushes towards the vehicles, elbowing for a place.

There are cries and tears. Some try to negotiate, others shout angrily. A woman in a black niqab veil falls into the mud after vainly trying to force her way through.

"We are dealing with women and children first, but we have a hard time managing things," said a member of the Iraqi security forces. "Look! There are so many people!"

Crammed together in the back of a truck, dozens of people wear expressions of relief on their tired faces as the truck pulls away.

They will head for one of several camps set up around the city to house the displaced. They will receive food, blankets and aid.

But many fear what comes next. There is little certainty about when they will be able to return home -- or if their homes will still be standing when they do.