Fleeing the West

By Amy Christian

‘There was fighting and bombing, airstrikes and killing; that’s why we left. We were so hungry but there was no food to buy.’ On Wednesday 24th May Huda Hussein sits huddled next to her husband towards the back of a bus filled with over fifty people who managed to escape the fighting in west Mosul in the last 24 hours.

Huda and her family are just a few of thousands of people arriving at Abu Saif screening site everyday. It’s just past 11am and over 100 busses have already passed through the site since sunrise. ‘We’re from Hai Sihha in west Mosul. We left last night and went to the Washana area. We held white flags and walked towards the Iraqi Security Forces. They screened us there – fifteen to twenty families that had left together – then we went to houses in Washana to sleep.’

Oxfam staff give out bottled water and biscuits to families arriving in Abu Saif. Some of them haven’t eaten for over 24 hours and are traumatised from having escaped the fighting. Temperatures are rising fast and the heat is already suffocating early in the morning. Dehydration is a real concern for people who have been travelling for so many hours in such poor conditions, often having walked for hours to reach safety.

“We left our house because it was bombed. We went to live in a school but that was bombed too.”

Grandmother Lilas Odai with her grandson on another bus just arrived at Abu Saif. (Photo credit: Amy Christian)

Grandmother Lilas Odai sits with her daughter in-law and two grandchildren on another bus just arrived at Abu Saif. ‘We left our house because it was bombed. We went to live in a school but that was bombed too.’ Lila and her family went to stay with family in Hai Mansor but as fighting reached them there too they were forced to leave again. ‘This morning at 9.30am we walked to Dowra, myself and my daughter-in-law and my two grandchildren. We don’t have anything, not even clothes for the children. We left everything so that we could flee.’

Once families are screened they are taken to one of the camps in Hamam Alil where they will be given a tent until they’re able to return home. For some people this might happen relatively fast but for others, whose homes are still under ISIS control they could face months in a tent in the increasingly sweltering heat.

Reefa has just arrived at Scorpion Junction, another screening site nearby. She sits on the floor next to her friend waiting to be told what to do next, she doesn’t know where to go. ‘Our area hasn’t been retaken yet so we fled in the night. We fled because we didn’t have anything – no electric and no water; we didn’t have anything to drink. We were just drinking dirty water.’ Families fleeing areas still under ISIS control risk being shot by snipers as they escape but the worsening conditions inside areas of the city not yet retaken are forcing people to make that difficult choice. People are leaving at night so as to reduce the chance of being seen by snipers but its leaving families exhausted and traumatised and in desperate need of help once they arrive to safety.

Many people have already been displaced several times before arriving in Hamam Alil. Hamid Alawi and his family have been living in the camp for over a month. ‘We are from Zumar near Shengal. Zumar was retaken two years ago but our area was between two frontlines and we couldn’t pass through.’

Eventually Hamid was forced to flee into Mosul with his family, taking them to live in an unfinished house in the west of the city. ‘After a while we couldn’t afford the rent so we went to live in a school but ISIS came and told us to leave the school as classes were starting, so we had to live in the streets.

“We could only eat food that people gave us; we had nothing. Sometimes we just ate bread with water. A month ago we moved to a school in Badoush and then we decided to come here to the camp.”

Hamid Alawi and his family have been living in the camp for over a month. (Photo credit: Amy Christian/Oxfam)

Oxfam is working in Hamam Alil camp delivering water, distributing essential household items like wash basins and solar lights, managing the maintenance of the toilets and showers, including dislodging, and collecting the rubbish in the camp. As thousands more people flood into the Hamam Alil camps every day Oxfam is scaling up its programmes, making sure families have access to essential water, clean toilets and showers.