Battle for Mosul puts 100,000 children at risk, aid groups can’t keep up

A man is helped after identifying the body of a relative who died in a house that was destroyed during fights between Iraq security forces and the Islamic State on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, March 24, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The months-long surge of Iraqi forces to retake Mosul continues to force people to flee the city and leaves 100,000 children trapped in the city in “extremely dangerous conditions,” warns UNICEF.

The situation presents a number of challenges for humanitarian organizations. Immediate protection is needed for the people and families still in the city who are caught in the middle of fighting between the Islamic State and the Iraqi military. Getting aid to people in the city is difficult due to the violence.

And then there is the risk of fleeing the violence.

“We are receiving alarming reports of civilians, including several children, being killed in west Mosul,” Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Representative in Iraq, said in a statement. “Some were reportedly killed as they desperately tried to flee the fighting which is intensifying by the hour.”

A Reuters TV crew discovered the bodies of dozens of men, women and children in the embattled Zanjili district over the weekend. It is yet unclear how they were killed. There have been numerous reports that Islamic State forces are shooting people who try to run. Some people also have reportedly been injured as the result of airstrikes by the US-led coalition in support of Iraqi forces.

Finally, there remains a threat to health and welfare even for those who manage to escape the city.

Life for the estimated 316,000 people who fled the fighting and now live in one of the 12 camps set up by Iraqi authorities is difficult due to lack of international support for refugee assistance. About half of the total original population of Mosul is estimated to have been displaced by the fighting. As people keep leaving, aid groups are trying, and often failing, to keep up.

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The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it urgently needs $60 million to assist people in the camps. The funds are needed immediately to provide basic items including blankets, mattresses and legal assistance. That does not include food support for the more than 180,000 displaced people facing hunger.

There are “worrying signs of an increase in the rate of malnutrition,” the World Food Program (WFP) warned last week. Often, the problem starts before families flee Mosul. Some 9 percent of children arriving in the Salamiya 1 camp are malnourished, says WFP.

Families still in the besieged city report there is little food in Western Mosul, leaving them many with only one meal a day. The resulting malnourishment rate is twice as high as was recorded in January.

“The situation in western Mosul has deteriorated substantially and families are arriving at camps and mustering points terrified, tired and hungry from the journey under the blistering summer heat,” WFP Iraq Representative and Country Director Sally Haydock said in a statement. “In extreme cases, people cannot access food at all.”

U.N. agencies and aid groups working in Iraq continue to press the international community and Western governments for more money, better access and an end to the fighting. Humanitarians can reach more people due to the government-supported camps near Mosul, but not everyone goes to a camp and the city itself still needs support.

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In fact, thousands of people are returning to the parts of Mosul taken by military forces. Violence is no longer a concern, but they return to destroyed homes and infrastructure. Families who once had direct access to clean drinking water are now cut off. UNICEF says it delivers nearly 500,000 gallons of water to the city each day.

“Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure including hospitals, clinics, schools, homes and water systems should stop immediately,” said Hawkins.

Without access to water, schools and hospitals are unable to function properly. The ripple effects from the battle touch all aspects of life. It adds another layer of coordination for humanitarians trying to assist Iraqis in the region.

The assault on Mosul started in October 2016. Iraqi forces are leading the effort and are backed by the U.S. military. By January the eastern part of the city was re-captured and the effort to take the other half started in February. More than 2,000 people have died over the course of the battle – roughly half are civilians, according to the U.N.

Both sides in the fight stand accused of killing civilians. A coalition airstrike killed more than 100 people in West Mosul’s Jadida neighborhood in March. Amnesty International said it was just one example of the coalition using explosives in densely populated areas of the city. The rights group is pressuring the U.S. to stop making the same mistakes and learn from the lessons of its investigation into the March incident.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.