Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, feels quite normal this morning. People are out and about on the streets, traffic is moderate, and shops and cafes are open. As you walk around on the main roads, the morning and the scene seem quite ordinary. But all over town, government officials, UN agencies, international and local NGOs, and the city’s residents are anxiously looking toward mid-October. This is when Iraqi and allied military forces are expected to begin their assault on the city of Mosul, currently held by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). No one knows precisely when the assault on Mosul will start – rumors have been flying for months. But it’s no longer a matter of if.
While anticipation of the Mosul offensive continues to build – along with concern about the consequent displacement that could overwhelm nearby areas – the reality is that Mosul’s military offensive and displacement crisis started some time ago. In June, fighting increased in the areas around the city known as the “Mosul corridor,” driving large numbers of families out of Ninewa and into other governorates to the south and east. In the past several months, more than 100,000 people have fled the areas around Qayyara and Shirqat, two towns taken by Iraqi fighting forces as part of the military approach to Mosul itself.
Local Iraqi aid groups have been assisting these internally displaced persons (IDPs) from day one with food, water, medical attention, and relief items like blankets and mattresses and stoves. When possible, international non-governmental organizations have also gotten involved in the response, but they are more restricted by security considerations than groups comprised of local staff, who are often themselves members of the affected communities. One hundred thousand IDPs is not a small number. As I have been told repeatedly during our Refugees International mission here, Mosul has started. People don’t say this only because the current military movement is part of the larger plan to push ISIS out of Mosul. Rather, it’s because the current displacement and the level of assistance needed for the IDPs are precursors to what might be the huge humanitarian crisis to come.
The current displacement and the level of assistance needed for the IDPs are precursors to what might be the huge humanitarian crisis to come.
Mosul has now been under ISIS control for more than two years. Humanitarian access to the city has been limited, but based on information from people who have managed to leave the city, a reasonably clear picture has emerged of what life there has been like. Minority groups have been targeted for persecution, food is often not available, women have been abused, schools have been closed, and fuel and electricity are in short supply. Medical care is practically non-existent. For humanitarians, providing basic survival items and services will be only the tip of the iceberg. A huge proportion of the people who leave are likely to be separated from their families and surviving on their own, and survivors of torture and trauma. Many children fleeing Mosul will likely not have had adequate education for the past two years. Feeding and sheltering all of those fleeing from Mosul will be a massive project, as will supporting their medical and psychosocial needs.
Minority groups have been targeted for persecution, food is often not available, women have been abused, schools have been closed, and fuel and electricity are in short supply. Medical care is practically non-existent.
When thinking about Mosul, consider that 100,000 people have already fled surrounding areas and are presenting with these needs. Refugees International visited Salahaddin governorate last week and saw IDPs living in abandoned buildings in the center of towns. Some were living in makeshift shelters at checkpoints because a male member of the family had been delayed by security screening. Still others were trying to get by in outlying villages, where the humanitarian groups have a harder time finding people. Aid agencies – particularly the local groups – are doing an admirable job of responding to the IDPs, but they can’t reach everyone. What will happen when the current number of people displaced from in and around Mosul suddenly increases by a factor of ten? The humanitarian challenge is and will continue to be enormous, because while we were waiting for Mosul to start, Mosul started.