THE first stop for the thousands of civilians forced to flee their homes in Mosul is often inside their own city, sometimes in the homes of complete strangers.
Mohammed fled the violence on the western side of the Iraqi city, which is traversed by the Tigris river, and found shelter in an abandoned house in Al-Intisar, a neighborhood in the east.
“I know nothing about this house,” said Mohammed, a 62-year-old man with black teeth. “The owners left for Baghdad, they were displaced too. The neighborhood’s residents told me I could stay so I did.”
Mohammed explained that moving to one of the many displacement camps set up by the United Nations and other relief agencies around Mosul was not an option. “It’s like prison, they don’t let you out,” he said.
The tour of his new, temporary home is quickly done: three rooms, a rug hanging from one of the walls and a full tea service.
“There’s a generator but no water,” said Mohammed, who moved in with one of his two wives, a son and his pregnant daughter-in-law.
The neighborhood of Al-Intisar they now live in was retaken by Iraqi forces recently but is close to the front line, where Daesh (the so-called IS) Islamic State group is resisting with suicide bombings and mortar and sniper fire.
The area is still a war zone — the crackling of gunfire, the thrum of helicopters overhead and the rumble of tanks moving down the streets can be heard throughout much of the day.
Nearly three months into the offensive launched by Baghdad and its allies to retake the city, Daesh has lost around two thirds of the eastern side but fully controls the west bank.
Hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents still live in the war-torn city, in which the US-led coalition says there are 200,000 buildings, complicating the government’s advance.
After living under the tyrannical rule of the “caliphate” proclaimed by Daesh following its capture of Mosul in June 2014, residents are now directly exposed to the battle aimed at ousting the militants from their city.
According to the UN, more than 125,000 people have fled their homes since the start of the offensive on Oct. 17.
Only 14,000 of them have been able to return to their homes in areas recaptured from Daesh, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Those fleeing from inside the city often attempt to remain as close as possible to their homes, picking their way through battle lines as they push their belongings on carts and look for a temporary home.
Abu Ahmed, his wife and their three children are among those Mosul residents displaced within their own city, whose exact number the chaos of urban warfare makes impossible to determine.
They benefited from the hospitality of friends who welcomed them in Al-Intisar but Abu Ahmed said he was worried about his son, who is three and a half years old.
“There are bombings, airstrikes. Now he already knows the language of war. A child like him should not have to know this,” he said.
Commanders have warned that the battle for Mosul could last many more months and the future of Iraq’s second city looks bleak but stories of solidarity between its residents offer some hope.
Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi this week praised what he called “the Iraqi spirit” displayed in Mosul by families opening their doors to displaced civilians, sometimes dozens of them at a time.
In Al-Intisar, a mother of seven girls welcomed five families in her home for several days.
“Praise to God, I opened my house and welcomed them. I didn’t know them,” said the lady, who gave her name as Umm Dunia.
She recalled how her family and the 20-odd extra guests she hosted hunkered down in the house while Iraqi forces battled militant fighters in the street.
“We would keep the water we’d used to wash ourselves in a basin. That way it wouldn’t run into the street and give away the presence of people inside the house,” she said. — AFP