The Iraqi-led operation to retake the western part of Mosul from Islamic State fighters began this week. Despite the hardships, many people are choosing to stay in their homes, making it challenging for humanitarian groups to give them aid.
The militant Islamic State group, or ISIS, took over the northern oil-rich Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, in an attempt to set up a caliphate governed by strict sharia law.
After forcing ISIS from eastern Mosul in January, coalition forces started their campaign to free the rest of the city on Sunday. Iraqi forces have taken hold of the city’s airport, and on Friday, started to push into ISIS-held western neighborhoods.
International and local aid workers can’t enter the western part of the city, but they are helping residents of the eastern section return to normal life, opening schools and fixing water systems.
Su’ad Jarbawi, the Iraq country director for Mercy Corps, said this week from the northern city of Erbil that she was pleasantly surprised to see people venturing out in the streets. During a recent visit, markets in eastern Mosul came to life. But in the ISIS-held portion of the city, it’s a different story.
“We’re not able to get into western Mosul, but we can only predict that the situation there remains dire. Food is becoming scarce, and prices are inflated to an unprecedented degree,” she said. An estimated 750,000 civilians remain inside that portion of the city, according to Mercy Corps.
When the battle for the eastern part of the city began, aid groups expected a tidal wave of residents to flee. They set up camps and handed out cash cards — in three monthly installments of $400, $360 and $360 — to help those who did leave, Jarbawi.
Not only does cash “offer freedom of choice, it also allows [the recipients] to maintain their dignity,” she said. “They’re not standing in line to receive a food or hygiene kit that they don’t need. They can spend it on what they want,” such as transportation and rebuilding their homes.
Aid groups are finding that many people want to stay in their homes, rather than venturing to temporary camps. The phenomenon is occurring not only in Iraq but in other war-torn areas, too, Jarbawi said. It makes the humanitarian response more complicated, she said, but aid workers are committed to providing civilians help wherever they are.