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Battle for Mosul: The forgotten refugees stranded on an Iraqi desert plain

Islamic State drove them from their homes. Now these villages battle harsh weather, severe water shortages and limited fuel supplies
Chasab Halaf's 11-person family live in a one-room tent near Guli (Tom Westcott/MEE)

MOSUL, Iraq - When Islamic State militants swept through the mud-brick dwellings of the sleepy Iraqi desert village of Guli in 2014, its community of farmers, who eke out a living rearing sheep, could do nothing but accept life under a merciless rule.

With a commanding view over the flat Iraqi desert landscape, a hill on the village outskirts gave Guli strategic importance to Islamic State, which is sometimes called Daesh. Terrorised into submission by public lashings and finger-breaking even for smoking, locals watched helplessly as IS militants tunnelled into the hill - after desecrating an ancient hilltop graveyard - to establish a network of routes and rooms from which they could monitor the surrounding area.

'If you were caught with a phone, you were executed immediately'

- Ali Slebi, resident, Guli

When the Iraqi army launched its Mosul offensive, the country’s Hashd al-Shaabi - or Popular Mobilisation - forces began battling to liberate IS-held territories in Iraq’s north-western desert. By November 2016 they had reached the outskirts of the Tal Abta region where Guli lies.

But the villagers, who had been stripped by IS of any communication with the outside world, had no idea that liberation was at hand.

“We had no access to news because watching television was forbidden and Daesh had confiscated our satellite dishes and telephones,” Ali Slebi, 40, told MEE. “If you were caught with a phone, you were executed immediately.”

A Hashd al-Shaabi fighter explores tunnels IS dug into Guli Hill, Iraq in January 2017 (Tom Westcott/MEE)
When the sound of fighting echoed across the desert, IS snipers took up position in lookouts in the hillside tunnels and militants seized their homes, villagers piled their families and livestock into decrepit farm vehicles and fled towards neighbouring communities.

A cluster of inconspicuous mud-bricked hamlets which lacked strategic importance to IS provided relative safety. Overnight it became a sprawling camp, housing 750 fleeing families. Although IS was defeated in the Tal Abta area within weeks, Guli remained dangerously close to active front lines and was declared a military zone.

Biggest problem? Water

Two months later, families from the village are still living in makeshift tents, enduring harsh winter conditions and extreme food, water and fuel shortages.

A Hashd al-Shaabi fighter stands guard in January 2017 at one of the camps near Guli (Tom Westcott/MEE)
“We have no oil to burn and the nights are very cold, so it is difficult to keep warm,” said Chasab Halaf, 56, from a camp tacked onto the hamlet of Boota Al-Sharqia.

His 11-person family have, for two months, lived in a makeshift single-roomed draughty tent, the dwelling’s patched and ageing military canvas cover stretched over wooden poles. During the day, the family carefully pile up blankets and mattresses which half-fill the tent to make enough space in which to eat and live.

'The army brings tanks of brackish water and essential food supplies, but whatever they bring is just not enough'

- Chasab Halaf, resident

But the biggest problem, explains Halaf, is the water.

“The only water we have is salty water which is not potable so we collect rainwater to drink,” he said. “But when it doesn’t rain, it’s a very big problem.”

One of his sons fetched a bowl of the precious rainwater, coloured a shade of dirty brown. Halaf’s wife said the persistent use of the brackish water for washing and cooking had left the younger children with irritable skin conditions.

Mohammed Thallag, 50, was standing among the tatty tents where the sheep and goats - which are the villagers’ livelihood - wander freely.

The last lion of Mosul

“Around 4,000 people have been living in these camps for the last two months,” he said. “When the fighting started, we left with just the clothes we stood up in, so life here is very difficult.

"We have extreme shortages of water, food and oil. The army brings tanks of brackish water and essential food supplies, but whatever they bring is just not enough.”

How to supply remote refugees?

Hamid Al-Yassree, commander of the Hashd al-Shaabi, said his forces had been doing their best to fulfil the humanitarian needs of the displaced communities, regularly delivering water and food supplies and aid provided by the office of senior Iraqi cleric Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani. On one occasion a truck of aid donated by the UN was also able to get through.

“We guaranteed all these families food for this time,” he said. “Civilians are our biggest concern because we know they are simple people - farmers and shepherds - who suffered under Daesh.”

One of the camps near Guli, home to around 4,000 people, in January 2017 (Tom Westcott/MEE)
Hashd al-Shaabi resources have been thinly stretched: already they have to supply thousands of troops holding nearby front lines against IS, front lines which stretch for hundreds of kilometres through the desert.

International aid organisations admit that the remote location of these desert camps has made access challenging, and the wheels of NGOs can seem to turn slowly. Until this week when the first batch of comprehensive aid arrived, these internally displaced Iraqis say they had felt largely forgotten.

'Civilians are our biggest concern because we know they are simple people - farmers and shepherds - who suffered under Daesh'

- Hamid Al-Yassree, commader of the Hashid Shaabi

UNICEF’s Iraq communications team said they distributed aid in the Tal Abta area on Monday, including water purification tablets, bottled water and winter clothing to 2,500 families. They also installed eight water tanks near water sources to try and address this most urgent shortage.

Oxfam, too, has been working on reaching those displaced in the Iraqi desert. “So far, Oxfam has visited and assessed three villages in the area. They were damaged and partially tented, some hosting IDPs [Internally Displaced People] among the community,” said Thomas Robinson, Oxfam’s emergency team lead in Iraq.

“We are aware of the larger camps and are planning an assessment. We have not delivered aid to these specific camps yet but we have distributed directly in Hashd al-Shaabi-controlled areas close by.”

Football amid despair

Al-Yassree said returning people to their homes was a priority, adding: “No matter what we can give, we know it is not the same as being in your own home and, because it is winter, the conditions are very cold.”

Hashid Shaabi fighters and camp residents play football near Guli, Iraq in January 2017 (Tom Westcott/MEE)
But many displaced families will have to wait until military engineers have checked their squat mud-brick homes for IEDs and unexploded ordinance.

In the meantime, the predominately Shia Hashd al-Shaabi forces have been promoting integration and trying to build mutual trust and good feeling between military units stationed in the area and the local people, who are mostly Sunni.

Organised events have included regular football matches in the desert between young camp residents and soldiers.

Dead in the water: IS launches doomed raids across Mosul river

“Today people feel as though they have been liberated from a prison, after two-and-a-half years under Daesh,” Al-Yassree said at one match, as the football teams lined up on freshly drawn white markings on the sand.

Several hundred men from the camps had boarded trucks to reach the pitch. Lying just six kilometres from the front line against IS, soldiers patrolled the surrounding desert, as children, too young to play in the match, kicked footballs. Before, during and after the game, there was chanting and cheering for a unified and peaceful Iraq.

Young fear for future

Despite the upbeat event, some youngsters remained preoccupied by fears that their interrupted education had left them facing a bleak and desperate future.

Hashid Shaabi fighters sing and dance after a camp football match in January 2017 (Tom Westcott/MEE)
“There are 100 students in our camp and we urgently want to go back to school and university,” said Mashan Sha’an, 21. “I had just started university and was looking to my future but, under Daesh, I have wasted three important years.”

His friend Abdulaziz, 20, has had his planned career as an imam delayed by years after the arrival of IS. “I was at Quranic College in Mosul studying for my degree when Daesh came,” he said. “But I expect everyone I started with will have finished their degree by now except me.”

The Hashd al-Shaabi forces have liberated more than 4,500 sq km of Iraqi desert and more than 181 villages and hamlets since autumn 2016.

More reports from Tom Westcott amid the battle for Mosul

A spokesman said the forces had opened six camps around Qayarrah which at present house around 25,000 families and can be relatively easily reached by international aid organisations.

But those living in the numerous smaller and more temporary camps that are dotted across newly liberated desert areas are at risk of remaining largely off the radar - and too remote for regular international aid to reach.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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