BAGHDAD — “I fled from the Zanjili district with the help of our neighbors, leaving behind my father and two of my siblings. I still do not know what happened to them. There has been news that they were killed in the mass murders as they were fleeing the government forces at dawn on Saturday, June 3, 2017.”
This was the account given by 5-year-old Doha (a psuedonym) to Al-Monitor. Doha was accompanied by one of the aid workers in the vicinity of Hammam al-Alil camp, where the federal police had sent her.
On June 8, as Iraqi joint forces stormed the Old City of Mosul — the last area of the city under control of the Islamic State (IS) — concerns have been raised about the 100,000 civilians trapped in the densely populated city center.
Bruno Geddo, the Iraq representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said on June 16 that the civilians in Mosul's Old City, where the militants are surrounded by Iraqi forces, are "basically held as human shields."
"There is hardly any food, water, electricity or fuel. These civilians are living in an increasingly worsening situation of penury and panic because they are surrounded by fighting," he told Reuters.
Al-Monitor learned from activists working in Hammam al-Alil camp that about 40,000 children had lost their families while fleeing from IS in western Mosul.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Rezan al-Sheikh, the rapporteur for the parliamentary Children’s Affairs Committee, confirmed that 40,000 children were separated from their parents in the fighting.
“Some of these children are with relatives and others are with the security forces. Some families took it upon themselves to take care of them until the battles are over. I believe that a large number of the parents of these children were killed at the hands of IS,” Sheikh said.
In western Mosul, civilians live in difficult conditions. They do not receive any food because of IS’ monthslong siege.
On May 8, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a brief report on the situation of those trapped in Mosul and spoke about the rise of mass killings IS has perpetrated against civilians.
“Shooting children as they try to run to safety with their families — there are no words of condemnation strong enough for such despicable acts,” Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a comment in the report.
Member of parliament Adel Khamis Mahlawi said in a press conference June 7, “There are tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in Mosul and suffering from complete lack of food and medicine, not to mention their deadly situation under the fire of war.”
According to human rights reports quoting eyewitnesses in the Old City of western Mosul, IS members executed some families. “They had no choice but to die,” said Omar al-Zuhairi, a cousin of the Zuhairi family, who lost five of their sons in the recent Zanjili district massacre, in which at least 250 people were killed.
Zuhairi added in a phone interview with Al-Monitor, “IS sent death threats to three members of the Zuhairi family as it accused them of cooperating with the security forces. They denied the accusations and decided to escape, but they were killed on their way as they were trying to flee.”
An officer who is leading a regiment in the federal police, which continues to carry out liberation operations in Zanjili district, spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The security forces are trying to protect civilians as much as possible and to open safe corridors. However, IS has been using snipers and mortars in the fighting,” said the officer.
On June 3, UNICEF representative in Iraq, Peter Hawkins, said, “UNICEF is receiving alarming reports of civilians being killed, including children, with some caught in the crossfire, while trying to flee.”
“The lives of children there are at risk. They are being killed and wounded and used as human shields. They are witnessing terrible violence that no one should see,” he added.
The number of those who are still living in the neighborhoods of Zanjili, al-Shifaa and the Old City is estimated at 100,000 civilians, according to a counterterrorism officer who spoke to Al-Monitor.
The officer, who is based in western Mosul, said, “IS has been threatening the people who are still stuck that they will be shot at if they flee in the direction of the Iraqi security forces.”
The officer added, “When we surround IS-controlled areas, we open safe corridors for civilians, but IS members deliberately plant explosive devices and deploy snipers on the roads near the corridors to kill anyone who tries to escape.”
On June 3, the Iraqi security forces opened a safe road for civilians in Zanjili district. IS fighters were positioned in a tall medical building and opened fire on people taking the road, killing many.
Miles away from the confrontation lines, Doha is still looking with her relatives and aid workers for her family, whom she lost a week ago. Before she hung up the phone with Al-Monitor, she said, “I would die if I could not find my family.”