About 600,000 Iraqis remain in the areas of west Mosul held by the ISIS group, including 400,000 who are “trapped” in the Old City under siege-like conditions facing food shortages and growing panic under shelling that could provoke a mass exodus, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Thursday.
“They are desperate for food. They are panicked,” Bruno Geddo, the UNHCR representative in Iraq told reporters in Geneva by phone from a transit center for displaced people near Mosul.
He said people arriving at the Hammam al-Alil transit center about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Iraq’s second largest city told stories of the ‘dramatic’ situation they left behind.
“There is a shortage of fuel, of food, of electricity. People have resorted to burning furniture, old clothes, anything they can use to keep warm at night, because it is still raining heavily and the temperatures at night in particular drop significantly,” he said.
“It is very, very limited what they can eat,” he said, adding that people were surviving primarily on a little bread and water, and many were eating just once a day.
Backed by US-led international coalition, Iraqi forces launched an operation in February to drive ISIS from the western half of Iraq’s second-largest city, after declaring eastern Mosul “fully liberated” the previous month. The city is divided by the Tigris River into a western and eastern half and the entire operation to liberate Mosul of the extremists began last October.
Many civilians fear fleeing because of ISIS snipers and landmines, but 157,000 have reached a reception and transit center since the Iraqi government offensive on west Mosul began a month ago, it said.
“The worst is yet to come, if I can put it this way. Because 400,000 people trapped in the Old City in that situation of panic and penury may inevitably lead to the cork popping somewhere, sometime, presenting us with a fresh outflow of large-scale proportions,” said Geddo.
Fighting in the past week has focused on the Old City, with government forces reaching as close as within 500 meters of al Nuri mosque, from where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria in July 2014.
ISIS militants are now on the back foot, with their stronghold in Syria also under attack. But they still hold an estimated 40 percent of western Mosul and the battle to recapture it could take weeks.
Civilians are streaming out at an increasing rate, now averaging 8,000-12,000 per day who reach a reception and transit center at Hammam al-Alil, Geddo said, speaking from that site 20 km (15 miles) south of Mosul where they undergo security screening.
“We also heard stories of people running away under the cover of early morning fog, running away at night, of trying to run away at prayer time when the vigilance at ISIS checkpoints is lower,” he said.
The government halted offensive operations on Thursday due to cloudy weather, which makes it difficult to bring in air support.
In Mosul, Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Ameer said the government forces were ready to start a big assault but were waiting for the weather to improve. He also said the militants’ ability to send out car bombs had significantly diminished after the security forces sealed off most roads inside Old City.
“The more you go without food, the more you become panicked and the more you want to run away. At the same time it (the outflow) is increasing because the security forces are advancing and therefore more people are in a position to run away where the risk is likely more mitigated,” Geddo said.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, reported that it treated children for “severe malnutrition” after they escaped from Mosul.
Those stuck in the Old City had to choose between remaining and facing hunger and possible death, or risk shelling and sniper fire to leave.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, the charity put the number of civilians fleeing western Mosul in “tens of thousands.” MSF said many of those who escaped had bullet wounds or have suffered blasts and shells injuries.
It depicted a grim picture of a lack in medical resources and the inability of ambulances to cope with the number of trauma victims and the long distances needed to transfer patients outside the city for further treatment.
“The need for emergency medical care has risen drastically,” said Dr. Isabelle Defourny, MSF director of operations. “We have teams working around the clock treating men, women and children injured by bullets, blasts and shells. Other life-threatening emergencies also need a rapid medical response, such as for pregnant women in need of a C-section.”
MSF medical teams in a field trauma hospital, set up when the new push in western Mosul began, have received more than 915 patients, according to the statement. Of those, 763 suffered war-related trauma, 190 of whom needed urgent lifesaving surgery.
More than half of the wounded were women or children under the age of 15, it said.
“The situation is really intense,” said an MSF surgeon, Dr. Reginald Moreels. “Every case we receive in the operating theater is severe, and almost every day we have to deal with mass casualties.”
“They are all putting their life at risk to flee a city under siege,” he added.