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Sofia Barbarani

Mourning for Mosul: The displaced who can't go home

Forced to flee to Erbil, many call for action to let them return home [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 July, 2015

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Feature: One year after the Islamic State group took over, Iraq's second-largest city remains desperate, with thousands unable to return to their homes, reports Sofia Barbarani.
One year ago, a weary man from Mosul waited with his family to cross the checkpoint into the safety of the Kurdish region.

Around him, a tired ocean of people sat patiently with their belongings and battered cars under the scorching afternoon sun.

Days earlier, Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, had fallen into the hands of the Islamic State group, sparking one of the world's most rapidly unfolding humanitarian crises.

The man and his family were among the first in the first wave of displacement that saw some 500,000 people flee Mosul in less than two days.

"We will only be here for four weeks," he said, hopefully.

Swelling streets

While a large number of families returned to Mosul that week, safe in the belief that they could live well under IS rule, most remained displaced.

The streets of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, began to swell with newcomers - as thousands of homeless people settled down in parks, churches and unfinished buildings.

Men in dishdashas and hijab-clad women became a common sight in the Christian area of Ainkawa, as Arabs from Mosul and minority groups from Nineveh alike gravitated towards the Arabic-speaking neighbourhood.

At the height of the summer, water and electricity became scarce, as more cars with Nineveh number plates spilled into Erbil, desperate to find solace from the violence they had left behind.

What were once quiet homes became crowded with extended family members from all over north Iraq.

Help still needed

Aid organisations mobilised quickly, constructing new IDP camps in Iraq and the Kurdish region and distributing kits of non-food items to the newly displaced, most of whom had left with only the clothes on their backs.

Today the ongoing violence has forced nearly 3 million people from their homes, as 60 percent of humanitarian operations risk being shut down for lack of funding; leaving hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people at risk.

The displacement caused by the fall of Mosul added to the already estimated one million displaced from historic conflicts and 240,000 Syrian refugees.

Protecting families from rampant armed violence became a primary concern for aid organisations dealing with a surge in civilians who were victims of armed conflict.

According to the UN, the number of individuals in need of immediate life-saving support is currently eight million and could reach 10 million by the end of 2015.

The UN and its NGO partners have asked for $497 million to provide shelter, food, water and other services over the next six months as dwindling funds are set to hinder the ability of aid agencies to balance emergency response with long-term projects.

"Humanitarian partners have been doing everything they can to help," said UNHCR's Lise Grande. "But more than 50 percent of the operation will be shut down or cut back if money is not received immediately."

Huge impact

While the Kurdistan Regional Government has taken on the burden of hosting more than one million IDPs, the Kurds' flimsy economy - as a result of budget disputes with Baghdad - has made it difficult for the Kurdish government to assist everyone, pushing them to rely heavily on international support.

One year after the fall of Mosul, the conflict has undoubtedly had a huge impact on all aspects of Iraq and Kurdistan's economy and society - and while most agencies are moving on from emergency response to care and maintenance, they warn that displacement is ongoing and not set to end any time soon.

In the past few weeks alone, more than 230,000 people have been displaced from Anbar governorate due to fighting between IS and Iraqi forces.

While host communities have been generally welcoming, displaced families have put pressure on limited services, creating tension between them and locals. Some organisations have invested time in bringing the two groups closer in an attempt to bridge the gap and prevent future clashes.

The fast-approaching summer will also prove a challenge for aid organisations and the displaced families that live scattered across 3,000 locations. Temperatures will soon soar to 50 degrees and water will become scarce.

"We are talking about ever-increasing numbers of people that need help while resources are only decreasing," UNHCR’s Grainne O'Hara told Irin. "This is impacting the quality of assistance people can receive."

The dire humanitarian effects of the fall of Mosul and the violence that ensued have not improved a year on - as millions of people find themselves far from home, often in squalid conditions.

It is unlikely that they will return to their hometowns soon, as neither the battle for Mosul nor the ultimate eradication of IS will happen in the near future.

As night fell at the busy checkpoint, a veiled woman was heard speaking frantically to a Kurdish guard, trying to convince the young uniformed man to let her and her elderly husband into the Kurdish region.

Raafa had returned to Iraq three weeks before the fall of Mosul after nine years abroad, following the violence of the US-led invasion and its chaotic aftermath.

She had packed up her life in Australia and moved back to Iraq with her husband and son, safe in the belief that her country had finally become more stable - only to be displaced once more.

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