Almost 100,000 people have fled their home in Mosul, Iraq, as military forces wage an offensive to rid the city of jihadist fighters from the self-describe do Islamic State (IS). Over one million more civilians remain in the city. Today, the British government will participate in an EU-led governmental conference which has the potential to drive action to make a real difference to help these people.
The bright sunlight belies the cold temperature; last night it was below freezing. I am in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, standing in a valley between hilltops that is now filled with the white tents that have become home for 4653 people in the last month. This is Zelican Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). It feels a million miles from Europe where, today, government representatives will gather for an EU-led conference to consider further action on the humanitarian response and stabilisation plans for Mosul and its people.
The people in Zelican have fled the Iraqi city of Mosul, and the brutality of life under IS. For two months, Iraqi and Kurdish forces and militia, with support from a US-led international coalition that includes the UK, have been conducting a military campaign to push IS out of its stronghold. Fighting is expected to continue until at least spring 2017.
Women stop to tell us their stories, which are a mixture of the ongoing fear and endless grimness of life under IS, and the terror of events as they ran for their lives across the frontline of this bloody war when the chance to escape – dangerous though it was – finally came. In long dresses, black coats and brightly coloured headscarves, they wait in line for dignity kits which the International Rescue Committee, the aid agency I work for, is distributing. Each of them receives a box containing soap, new cotton underwear, sanitary towels, fresh headscarves, plastic shoes for the shower, washing powder, talcum powder, nappies, and a towel, as well as a plastic bucket. Each of them has come with their family and little – if anything – else, running from their homes and their livelihoods to reach safety.
Fatima* is from a village on the outskirts of Mosul. She tells us that for the last two and a half years, she had no idea what was happening in the outside world. IS would check for mobile phones and other devices, punishing anyone who was found with one. She feels safe in the camp, although her tent is too small for her family. But when she first arrived one month ago, she could not get the sound of screaming out of her head, “For the first week after I arrived, every time I heard a toilet door slam, I thought it was shooting.”
Leila and her family were shepherds, who were first forced to flee twice by the fighting. Leila’s son and brother in law were hurt, and she graphically describes witnessing her neighbour’s son die from a head injury. “We knew we would have to leave, and we hoped that some of us would survive. IS pushed us from one house to another. Then there were many explosions, and eventually we left.” When her family crossed the frontline of the battle from IS-held territory to the Kurdish Peshmerga, Leila describes an IS fighter driving a car bomb behind them (using suicide bombers on foot or in cars is a widely-used ISIS tactic). She says the Peshmerga fired on the car and fortunately detonated the bomb before it reached them. Her family found their way to the camp and Leila frequently says they are lucky to be alive, although it is very cold in the tent and things are very difficult. She hopes to return home one day.
Aisha has strong view about IS, “They are not Muslims! They are terrorists! Islam is to help people – this is not IS.” She says that her husband would have been flogged if she had left the house without her face and hands covered.
Salma simply cries. Her house was bombed after IS took it over. Her family has nothing to return to.
Later, in a psychosocial support session run by IRC colleagues, Asma and a group of women do embroidery. She chooses to sew her beads into the shape of a broken heart.
On Friday in Brussels, representatives of the UK and European governments will gather for a ‘High Level Donor Meeting’ to discuss the humanitarian response to the crisis in Iraq, and priorities for stabilisation. It is a trend today that the scale of humanitarian need in the world – the funds required to pay for the basic needs of those affected by war and disaster, like Fatima, Leila, Aisha, Salma and Asma – far outweighs the willingness of donors to stump up the cash required to keep people alive and help them to survive with dignity. Globally, there is a humanitarian funding gap of $15 billion. Iraq has a funding gap of $235 million for 2016, with some $930 million needed for 2017.
The UK has given £90 million in humanitarian aid to Iraq this year. But the UK and others must do more on Friday. Pressure must be maintained to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties in the fighting. New support for UNAMI’s human rights office is needed to ensure that security screening of IDPs respects humanitarian principles and due process. There is an urgent need to de-mine Mosul and its surrounding areas, where ISIS have booby trapped homes and public spaces liberally, making it impossible for people to safely return home. Donors must act on this. And these governments must engage with the Iraqi Government and its Governorates to develop a plan for what happens after the Mosul offensive. People cannot be forcibly returned home before it is safe, or unless they want to go back. Some will need help to settle and integrate elsewhere.
In Erbil, my IRC colleagues and other agencies talk worriedly of ‘Iraq fatigue’; the idea that Western governments and their people are tiring of involvement in a country so complex and riddled with problems. Certainly, there is much to learn from the UK’s engagement with this country in recent decades. But on this cold, cold morning in Zelican Camp, it is clear that these people, who have already lost so much, need our help more now than ever.
On Friday, the UK must play a leading role in delivering fresh action and long-term commitments to help the people of Iraq survive, recover and rebuild their lives.
Melanie Ward is Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. She tweets @melanie_ward. Name some have been changed to protect identities.