Mo­sul refugees trapped un­der IS fire along the Syr­ian border

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

They have es­caped the Is­lamic State group strong­hold of Mo­sul but hun­dreds of Iraqis seek­ing refuge in neigh­bor­ing war-torn Syria are now trapped on the border un­der ji­hadist fire. As hun­gry and thirsty chil­dren wan­der in tears be­tween makeshift tents, a mo­tor­bike sud­denly roars to­wards the en­camp­ment in the Rajm AlSal­ibeh border area, just in­side Syr­ian ter­ri­tory. Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers man­ning the border open fire, fear­ing an IS scout, or even a sui­cide bomb at­tacker. The ve­hi­cle dis­ap­pears from view but then reemerges and is again met by fire from the Kur­dish forces a sec­ond time be­fore it re­treats. The in­ci­dent height­ens the ten­sion and fear at the border, where Iraqis flee­ing IS-held Mo­sul ahead of an army op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture the city are seek­ing refuge in their war-torn neigh­bor.

“A mor­tar shell fell and an Iraqi fam­ily was in­jured. Day and night there are clashes. We’re liv­ing in dan­ger here,” said one Iraqi in his thir­ties, who re­fused to give his name. He said he feared reprisals against rel­a­tives still in Mo­sul, and spoke with his check­ered kef­fiyeh over his face to hide it from the cam­era. Around him in the desert, hun­dreds of Iraqis waited in the heat. De­spite the war that is rav­aging Syria and has dis­placed mil­lions of its res­i­dents, the Iraqis are des­per­ate to reach the UN-run Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria’s Hasakeh prov­ince. The wait is long: this group has been stuck on a stretch of Syr­ian border for 10 days, with IS-held Iraqi ter­ri­tory just be­hind them.

Trapped on the front­line

Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces man earth berms on the border, and reg­u­larly skir­mish with IS fight­ers com­ing from Iraq. The ji­hadists some­times send scouts to see where peo­ple have gath­ered and then launch mor­tar shells at flee­ing civil­ians. “We’re on the front here, there is con­stant fire,” said an­other Iraqi refugee, his face also cov­ered, this time with a black scarf. “My son is sick from the heat. Why won’t they help us and let us enter Al-Hol?” he asked, also re­fus­ing to give his name for fear of reprisals. Lo­cal of­fi­cials say the de­lays are nec­es­sary to pre­vent IS fight­ers from en­ter­ing the coun­try and the camp.

“There are se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures to fol­low. We’re afraid that Daesh (IS) el­e­ments might try to in­fil­trate dis­guised as civil­ians,” camp of­fi­cial Roder Younes said ear­lier in the week. Al-Hol lies some 200 kilo­me­ters from Mo­sul, ter­ri­tory that those flee­ing must nav­i­gate mostly on foot, dodg­ing IS mines and sniper fire in­tended to keep civil­ians from es­cap­ing. The wait­ing fam­i­lies lie on blan­kets un­der makeshift fab­ric tents that shade them from the blaz­ing sun. Men and women haul heavy bags stuffed with their re­main­ing be­long­ings, as bare­foot and in some cases vis­i­bly mal­nour­ished chil­dren nib­ble bis­cuits that tem­po­rar­ily dis­tract them from cry­ing.

“The heat and the hunger are killing us,” said Nawal, dressed in black. “At night it is so cold we dig a hole to bury our hands in and warm them up,” she added, sit­ting with her three chil­dren in a group of other women. At Al-Hol, the camp is be­ing ex­panded to ac­com­mo­date the refugees al­ready ar­riv­ing and the many more who are ex­pected to come as the op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture Mo­sul ad­vances.

Some 6,000 peo­ple have been at the camp for around the last two years, and it is be­ing ex­panded to re­ceive 30,000 peo­ple. On Fri­day, the United Na­tions refugee agency UNHCR said 912 Iraqis had ar­rived at the camp in re­cent days. But for those trapped on the border, the process is not mov­ing fast enough. “We’re been here a week, we’re thirsty and a con­tainer of drink­ing wa­ter is 1,500 Syr­ian pounds ($3), we can’t af­ford that,” com­plained Ibrahim al-Kha­laf, sit­ting in a makeshift tent with his wife and six chil­dren. “We fled op­pres­sion, and we hope we won’t be op­pressed here too.” —AFP

HOL: Iraqi refugees who fled Mo­sul, the last ma­jor Iraqi city un­der the con­trol of the Is­lamic State (IS) group ar­rive in the desert area of Ra­jam AlSal­iba on the Iraq-Syria border. —AFP

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