Some opt for risk of staying in Iraq’s Mosul
MOSUL, Iraq — Yasser Mahmoud carried a white flag, along with a small supply of rice, bread and water, as he returned to this city under siege.
The 35-year-old photographer had talked with friends who’d fled to displaced persons camps, and he found their stories of long lines for food and supplies alarming.
“If you need to do anything, you have to wait in a line,” he said of the camps, which have expanded and multiplied since troops entered the city last week.
So as Mosul empties — more than 49,000 have fled the city of 1.2 million since the offensive began last month — another stream of people skirt the gunfire, mortar blasts and suicide attacks as they trudge to neighboring villages for supplies and medicine, then wade back into the mayhem, carrying white flags and shopping bags as they head home.
Staying is risky. Islamic State militants have executed 40 civilians in the city, hanging victims’ bodies on electrical poles, according to the United Nations. The army has advanced to several neighborhoods beyond Zahra in eastern Mosul, but only moved forward about half a mile this weekend, according to special forces commanders.
A mass grave recently discovered by Iraqi troops south of the city contained more than 100 bodies, one of several Islamic State “killing grounds,” U.N. spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said at a briefing in Geneva last week.
Shamdasani said militants are reportedly stockpiling large amounts of ammonia and sulfur in the city, placing them among civil- Iraqi civilians head by truck to a camp Monday as they flee an embattled neighborhood in eastern Mosul. ians for possible use as chemical weapons. Attackers with explosive belts are being deployed in the alleyways of Old Mosul, she said, and women have been abducted and “distributed” to fighters or told they will be used to accompany militant convoys.
Mosul taxi driver Abdul Monhan Faris, 26, was in his garage having breakfast Thursday when a mortar struck, killing him. Faraz Munther helped soldiers remove his friend’s body from Zahra.
“Our neighborhood is free, but we have mortars coming from Qadisiya and Tahrir,” he said, referring to adjacent areas of eastern Mosul.
Yasser Mahmoud was among those unwilling or unable to abandon their homes in the face of such perilous urban warfare.
Two weeks ago, Islamic State fighters attacked his house to the west of Zahra in the early morning, breaking down the door, searching his photo studio, raiding the refrigerator and camping out. When they left, Mahmoud went into hiding in Zahra, leaving behind his wife and two children, ages 10 and 6.
His wife doesn’t have a cellphone or internet access — both banned by Islamic State — so Mahmoud put aside any thought of fleeing.
“I still don’t know anything about my family,” he said. “If I did, I might go.”
Ahmed Hassan and his friends also joined the risky caravan to a grocery store from eastern Mosul. Bearded but wearing Reebok track pants and Nike sweatshirts — outlawed brands on the streets of Mosul under Islamic State — they returned home with a single jar of tahini, all they could find on the bare market shelves.
Despite food shortages in the city, Hassan, 30, was reluctant to flee with his three children.
“I don’t want to take my family to the camps,” he said. “They won’t be able to stand it.”
But if the violence continues, he said, they may reconsider.
“It’s been 11 days since our neighborhood was freed, and they’re still mortaring,” said Hishan Mohammed, 24, a local barber.
The mortar and sniper attacks have shaken the already-chaotic lives of those who live in Mosul. Shops and street markets were still shuttered in Zahra on Saturday.