The Battle for Mosul: The Humanitarian Costs

Kevin Appleby
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: UN Photo/Bikem Ekberzade

Dispatches from the Middle East | The Battle for Mosul: The Humanitarian Costs

Senior Director for International Migration Policy, Kevin Appleby, reports from a fact-finding mission in the Middle East to ascertain the situation of Syrian, Iraqi, and other refugee groups in the region. From February 24 to March 6, 2017, Mr. Appleby traveled to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Greece.

Erbil, Iraq—Life in Erbil, Iraq, goes on. A visitor to the city would not know that a major battle for the second largest city in Mosul, Iraq was being waged about an hour drive away. An estimated 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2014 from advancing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters remain in the area, waiting for the day they can return to the Nineveh Plan and Mosul.  A little over 3 million are displaced throughout Iraq.

The IDPs in Erbil and the northern Kurdish city of Dohuk have found places to live in these cities, a sign of progress. There are no signs of the squatter camps that were prevalent in 2014, when ISIS invaded northern Iraq. Some have been allowed to live in the many unfinished structures abandoned during the oil bust and US withdrawal beginning in 2008. These once middle-class families, however, now struggle to make ends meet, as they have spent down whatever funds they brought with them in their escape from ISIS.

Now, another flow of IDPs has arrived from the besieged city of Mosul, which is about 60 miles west of Erbil. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 200,000 persons have left the eastern part of Mosul over the past three months to escape the fighting, as the Iraqi army is battling ISIS to recapture the city. They have fled to Erbil, a natural route away from the violence. This does not include another group of IDPs who have arrived because of fighting between the US-backed Iraqi army and ISIS in places such as Fallujah, Kirkuk, and Ramadi, names that sound eerily familiar to US citizens who followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and beyond.

Since eastern Mosul was taken back in January, about 50,000 who fled the violence have returned to their homes, but many are now coming back to Erbil.  Eastern Mosul is still unstable, they say, as ISIS continues to fire mortars from the western part of the city into the eastern part. There are reports that ISIS also is using drones to bomb the area.

Now, the assault on the western part of Mosul has begun, which promises to push even larger numbers south, toward the city of Qayyarah. Reports from west Mosul, on the other side of the Tigris River, indicate that the humanitarian situation is dire, as residents use trash to burn for heat, and, as one UNHCR staff person said, are thinking “of eating their dogs and cats.”

UNHCR is transferring IDPs from south of Mosul to camps closer to Erbil, where there is room to house them. They are preparing for as many as 200,000 IDPs to flow out of west Mosul over the next several weeks and are ready to house and feed as many as 400,000 before Mosul is finally secured.

While UNHCR and international groups should be able to meet the basic needs of the new IDPs, they cite the lack of other needed services, such as psycho-social support, documentation issues, primary education, and peace and reconciliation initiatives. Many of the new IDPs are not used to living in a camp, where their freedom of movement is curtailed. The sewage systems in the new camps became clogged, for example, as all the men started shaving the long beards they were forced to grow under ISIS.

The fight to defeat ISIS in Mosul could continue into the summer, as the extremists are blocking the narrow streets in the western part of the city with cars wired with bombs and snipers placed on rooftops. They are seizing homes and tearing down walls between them, so they can create block-long fortresses through which they can easily move. There also are reports of tunnels underneath the city that ISIS fighters are using to surprise the Iraqi forces. While the Iraqi army used light artillery to dislodge ISIS from eastern Mosul, more heavy artillery and bombing will be needed in the western part of the city, threatening civilians. Shia militia has blocked ISIS from escaping to the west and the Iraqi armed forces has ISIS surrounded on the south and north. The end will be bloody.

Mosul residents who fled to Kurdistan in 2014 are optimistic that ISIS will be driven from their city eventually, but they are not sure they will return to reclaim their homes anytime soon, if ever. Besides worrying for their long-term security, they have learned that ISIS has been destroying homes as they leave, not by blowing them up, but by making them uninhabitable.

“They bring in engineers who use chemical agents to ruin the water or sewage systems, for example, which families cannot afford to replace. They also rip out the wiring, so that electricity, if there is any, is also unavailable,” said one aid worker knowledgeable of the situation. Some families who have returned have found their homes burned inside out.

Potential returnees also fear former neighbors who, they say, betrayed them by informing ISIS that they were a minority and then living in their homes or taking their personal property after they left. “There is no one there we can trust anymore,” said one IDP. “Trust has been broken.”

Moreover, former Mosul residents are concerned that the extremist group still has influence over people who remained during the occupation, as they were not only able to seize physical property, but also spread their radical ideology to those who stayed, many of whom were forced to pledge their allegiance to ISIS.

“You might be able to defeat ISIS militarily, but their mentality and ideology will live on,” said the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda. Trust will need to be re-established in the region, and religious groups, particularly the Catholic Church and her service agencies, can help rebuild it.

Another reason former residents—Christian and Muslim—might not return to Mosul is that their future is brighter in other parts of Iraq, such as Kurdistan, or in other countries. The economy in the city, not to mention the schools and universities, have been virtually eliminated during the ISIS occupation. It could take a decade or more to re-establish those institutions to the stature they held prior to the conflict. There are estimates that it could cost several billion dollars to fully rebuild the city and restore its institutions, such as the police, court system, and local government.

The minority Christian community, now totaling 300,000, are reluctant to return because of security reasons, including to towns occupied by ISIS in the Nineveh Plain. The city of Qaraqosh, once the jewel of the Nineveh Plain, is unrecognizable. Christians from the town rejoiced upon the announcement that it had been retaken, but grew despondent when they began receiving pictures of their former homes, which had been ruined.

While the goal of reclaiming Mosul, a city of 2.3 million, is in sight, the struggle to rebuild the city and return its residents to safety and security, not to mention self-sufficiency, is just beginning. This is not only true for Mosul, but for numerous Iraqi cities and towns occupied by ISIS. The international community, led by the United States, should not reduce humanitarian and reconstruction aid for Iraq, but must increase it.

Moreover, it could take years to reconstruct the region, and even longer to rebuild trust in communities that once lived peacefully together. For the US and other western nations to abandon Iraq now would be to ignore the lessons from the first time they left, when ISIS was created.

March 8, 2017