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14th November 2016, 11:01:43 UTC

By Razaw Salihy, Iraq Campaigner at Amnesty International

“When we came here, we walked past our village. I would walk and cry, looking around at all the destroyed houses. Everything had fallen.”

This lament of an elderly woman from a village near Mosul plainly states how so many people in northern Iraq have lost so much, so quickly.

When Amnesty International spoke to her in an internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq last week, like many others from the villages and suburbs east of Mosul, she had fled the ongoing fighting between Iraqi and coalition armed forces and the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS), bringing little more than the clothes on her back and harrowing tales of life under IS rule and under mortars and air strikes. Many have already been displaced several times to escape hunger and poverty as result of IS repression in their villages, as well as clashes. They have lost most of their possessions, property and livelihoods.

“Militias in Baghdad forced me out of my house in 2006, and I moved to Mosul to keep my family safe. I started from nothing there and rebuilt. In one night I lost it all. I can’t go to Baghdad, and even if Mosul is liberated, I don’t think it will be safe again. I don’t know what else can happen to us now”, said a displaced man from Samah neighbourhood, east of Mosul city.

Caught in the crossfire and used as human shields

Those whose areas come under intensified attacks as the Iraqi army advances, are either forcibly moved by IS, or prevented from escaping to safer areas, to be used as human shields, while others manage to hide in relatives’ homes.

On 1 November, some 25 relatives were sheltering together in Gogjali when they said their house was struck by a rocket, killing three and injuring five – including three children. A survivor, whose husband, brother-in-law, nine-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter sustained shrapnel wounds, told Amnesty International:

“It was 7:30 am, we were all having breakfast when I heard a whistling sound and then a rocket fell right in the middle of the room, directly on my aunt. She was killed instantly, as fire spread, I could see her hand flying off. The matriarch of the house was also killed right there…My two children were injured, and another baby sitting on her grandmother’s knees had her arm amputated. IS fighters were right outside the door and wouldn’t even allow us to leave to tend to the injured or remove the bodies…We brought them to the back door… We couldn’t even transport our injured to the hospital until two days later. My children and husband are there, but I am stuck in the camp with no permission to leave. I am so worried about them.”

IS fighters further deliberately endanger civilians by stationing themselves in and around civilian homes, including on rooftops. One displaced resident of Samah neighbourhood, east of Mosul, explained their tactic:

“I saw what they do. [An IS fighter] stands by a house and sends two mortars towards the army, then picks up his weapon and runs off to another house before he is hit. The army think he’s still there and mortars fall on the house.”

One group of 27 relatives hid for three days under the stairs of their house. Among them was a 25-day-old baby whose mother fled the city of Mosul to the village of Bazwaya, some 18km away, the day after she gave birth.

“The children saw the Daeshi [Arabic colloquial term for a person affiliated with IS] running behind our house. They were shooting at the army from the house next door. When the mortar fell on the house, it brought one of our walls down. My husband and his brothers had come out of that room seconds before. They could have been buried under the rubble.”

Hunger, fear and punishment under IS

Displaced villagers sheltering in camps described a life of hunger and fear under IS rule. “We sold what we owned for food – our mattresses, our blankets. We broke our furniture apart to make firewood for cooking. It was like moving back in time,” said a mother who fled Bazwaya.

Most children who lived under IS rule were taken out of school by their parents, either out of fear of IS “brainwashing” or to alleviate poverty. Kids who tried to earn money from jobs such as selling sweets and nuts by the road side often received severe punishments from IS.

“They [IS] would take my son [aged 16] most days and give him lashes and bring him back to me, barely able to stand. All because we couldn’t afford the fine they imposed for selling things on the street. He’d still go back the next day to sell things. His father has a disability and can’t work.”

One woman said she did not remove her headdress (khimar) even when the Iraqi army entered the village and told them they were safe: “I thought they [IS] might come out of those tunnels they have dug in the village and kill the soldiers, then behead us if they saw us without the khimar.

You never know where they might come from. They gave my brother 40 lashes because his wife stepped outside to throw rubbish away without covering her face.”

Families divided by security screening

Amnesty International observed how families arriving at Khazir IDP camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I) are seeing their relatives for the first time in over two years through wire fences, as most are prevented from leaving the camp as they wait for security forces to carry out security screenings of all males arriving with them.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing battle for Mosul, IS’s brutal rule over the surrounding swathe of northern Iraq for the past two years has left a trail of destruction and trauma, the effects of which could linger for some time to come.

The families we spoke to are safe from IS now, but many fret about what the future will bring. How long will the fighting last? Will the forces who recapture their homes allow them to return? Will they have anything to go back to? Only time will tell.

This blog was first published by the International Business Times here

For more of Amnesty International’s recent research on the displaced in northern Iraq, see the October 2016 report Punished for Daesh’s crimes