CARE Dispatches: Escalating Need In Mosul

Written by Sam Bolitho, a member of CARE’s emergency response team in Northern Iraq

“They took the beautiful girls,” Goze tells me from her temporary home in a camp in northern Iraq.

It soon becomes clear what she was alluding to: the women were raped, their husbands killed.

This is the brutal reality of life under militant control in Iraq. A story you hear repeated in the country’s many camps when talking to survivors who have escaped.

It is feared the 1.5 million people still trapped in Mosul, a city larger than Ottawa or Calgary, have suffered similar atrocities in the two years it has been besieged by militants.

Children have been exposed to horrific levels of violence, forced into the conflict and risk being separated from their families as people begin to flee.

For two years, aid agencies haven’t been able to get into the city; it’s simply been too dangerous.

For two years, those in Iraq’s second largest city have been completely cut off – families have gone without essential medical supplies and food shortages have left thousands hungry.

When cities become battlefields, the challenges for civilians are immense.

And with journalists unable to report from inside Mosul, it’s impossible for Canadians to gain a true picture of just how horrific life is under militant rule.

Those desperate to leave face a gauntlet of sniper fire, explosives and booby traps.

So it is unsurprising only a small number – currently nearly 30,000 and mostly from outlying villages – have managed to flee.

This is the biggest ground offensive in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and as the fighting edges closer to the city centre, it’s feared up to a million people could be uprooted.

Right now, CARE is making contingency plans for every possible scenario, doing everything possible to be ready when the mass exodus begins.

People who leave will arrive at screening sites outside the city sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their back.

CARE and other agencies aim to be there with essential relief supplies including food, water, tents and mattresses.

These events in Mosul, while shocking, belie an even bigger crisis in Iraq.

Before this latest military offensive began, there were already 3.3 million people living in limbo, unable to return to their homes because of brutal conflict.

People like Jamila, a 21-year-old woman who is pregnant with her first child.

She fled her village two years ago after militants made their presence known with the sound of gunfire.

“Did they shoot into the air?” my translator asked. “No,” Jamila said matter-of-factly, “the people too.”

“I was so scared. In that moment, you can’t think.”

She now lives in a four-by-four metre tent, and like 10,000 people in this camp, she has no idea when she will be able to return home.

Across the country, there are 10 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

That number is certain to rise as the battle for Mosul intensifies, putting additional stress not only on camps that shelter the displaced but also on the families who have generously opened their homes to relatives and neighbours in need.

CARE has helped relieve some of the financial burden by supplying much-needed household items like soap, toiletries and sanitary items and offering vouchers so families can buy essentials.

In addition, with the support of the Canadian government, we have aided displaced people in northern Iraq with clean water, sanitation and hygiene assistance.

All important contributions, but as we look ahead the need will escalate sharply. According to the UN, $1.8 billion will be required should the worst case scenario transpire.

It’s not just food, water and shelter that are needed.

How do we ensure those who have been traumatised under militant-rule receive the psychological support they need?

How do we ensure those who have suffered sexual violence are welcomed back to their communities as survivors and not ostracized?

What can be done to help families who have endured long periods without any income?

These responses require long-term financial commitment and these are some of the questions we must address now.

The UN has warned the situation in Mosul is likely to be one of the biggest humanitarian crises of 2016.

Now is a chance to make sure it’s not the biggest humanitarian crisis of next year too.