Tired but happy, Iraqis finally escape Mosul jihadists

Tony Gamal-Gabriel
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Iraqi civilians flee Mosul as Iraqi forces advance inside the city during fighting against Islamic State group's fighters on March 8, 2017

Civilians rush down a hillside on the outskirts of Mosul to waiting Iraqi forces, tired but happy after finally being able to flee the clutches of the Islamic State group.

Trapped for years inside the jihadist-ruled city, escaping residents say IS fighters are growing increasingly desperate as Iraqi forces advance on their last bastions in west Mosul.

Civilians are being forced from their homes, they say, and rounded up by the retreating jihadists.

"We were used as human shields," says Abdulrazzaq Ahmed, a 25-year-old civil servant, who managed to escape along with hundreds of other civilians fleeing the recently recaptured neighbourhood of Al-Mansur.

The residents descend the hill to buses and police trucks that will take them to camps in the desert near Mosul, joining tens of thousands of others who have fled Iraq's second city.

Families carry their meagre belongings in plastic bags. Women in niqabs -- the face veil imposed on them by the jihadists -- walk alongside men with shaggy beards and elderly people carried on carts or pushed in wheelchairs.

In the middle of the crowd a young man, a dirty bandage wrapped around his forehead, suddenly collapses.

"He was wounded by a shell," his mother shouts. "Give him bread," she begs an officer. "We lived through some terrible times."

The wounded man is placed in a waiting van. A young boy holding a black sheep at the end of a rope also hopes to get on board.

- 'We were so hungry' -

"Where are we going to put this one?" a joking police officer asks, before allowing the boy and his sheep on board, followed by a young girl, her face smudged with dirt, carrying a doll.

Iraqi forces launched the offensive to retake Mosul in October and after recapturing its eastern side set their sights on its smaller but more densely populated west last month.

During the fighting in west Mosul -- which has forced more than 50,000 people to flee their homes -- the jihadists have lost control of several neighbourhoods and key buildings.

Rayan Mohammed, a frail 18-year-old, says IS fighters are scrambling in the face of the Iraqi offensive.

"They ran away like chickens," he says.

Mohammed says he was once given 60 lashes for missing prayers and thrown in prison for a week.

"If they stopped you with a mobile, with music..." he begins, leaving the sentence unfinished. "I left my phone at home, I was afraid to go out."

Another young man, 22-year-old Mohammed, says conditions in the city were dire.

"There was nothing left to eat or drink," says Mohammed, who gave up his studies when IS took control of Mosul in 2014, but now hopes to return to university.

Ahmed, in his 40s, says he was held for four months in a school in Al-Mansur after being detained by IS fighters along with his wife and nine children.

"Life was very difficult, we were so hungry, all we had to eat was bread and tahini," he says.

At his side his oldest daughter and his wife, who is carrying their 18-month-old girl, have lifted their veils to show their smiling faces.