Shrapnel split open Amir Faro’s face a few days ago in an explosion near the frontline. He knows that he needs treatment, and that there is barely any food for his family in the city. But he is not leaving Mosul.
“We’ve escaped death. Why should we go live somewhere else where our lives are finished anyway?” he said, as gunfire and the explosions of mortars could be heard nearby.
“As long as Daesh (Islamic State) aren’t coming back – which they won’t – I’ll be here,” the 39-year-old said, his head and face wrapped in a crude makeshift bandage to cover up his wound. “If I go to the camps, I’ll have nothing. My house is here and I’ve always lived here. My family and I will stay.”
The army entered Zahra, Faro’s district in eastern Mosul, 11 days ago, and commanders say they now have the area under full control. But shooting is still constant across the frontline, which runs along the boundary with a neighbouring district.
As a Reuters reporting team toured the area, a boy of around 11 years old was hit by shrapnel from a mortar round which sliced through part of his groin. A relative carried him towards a position near the frontline manned by elite soldiers from the Counter Terrorism Service. Troops bandaged the wound and rushed him off in an armoured vehicle.
Some 100,000 government troops, Kurdish security forces and Shia militiamen have joined the battle for Mosul, by far the biggest city in the hands of Islamic State fighters. The campaign to win it back from the jihadists is the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion.
So far, 56,000 people have fled their homes in Mosul for camps in the surrounding desert or safer areas during the battle. The United Nations and Iraqi government say hundreds of thousands more may be uprooted as the frontline presses deeper into the city.
Displaced Iraqis flee from their homes at Shahrezad village east of Mosul, Iraq. (REUTERS)
Many houses have already been abandoned by families who fled during Islamic State’s two and a half years of brutal rule. In Zahra, practically every second home is spray painted with the words “house for sale”; offered up by families for a pittance for the funds to escape.
But as many as 1.5 million civilians are still in harm’s way, huddling in hunger and fear, beyond the reach of aid.
“We can’t send our partners into an area where there’s active fighting,” said World Food Programme spokeswoman Inger Marie Vennize. The WFP has so far reached 100,000 people.
In Samah district next door to Zahra, 62-year-old Talal Selim was dragging a red chequered bag through the dust in search of food.
“I’m going to the market,” he said.
Which market? asked a Reuters reporter, surprised to hear of a place where food was for sale.
“I don’t know,” the man said. “I’m trying to find one.”
The closest semblance of a marketplace in Zahra was a crowd of people gathered outside a home, waving cash at men who handed out tomatoes and eggs, apparently brought in as government aid.
“This should be given out for free but people are selling it, and it’s expensive,” said Abu Mohammed, 43, as he peered over the throng.
“A few weeks ago eggs were around one dollar. Now it’s $3.50,” he said. “Some people have money saved, but it will run out quickly. Most have nothing. So some get food and some go hungry.”