This is an opinion piece by International Rescue Committee emergencies director Bob Kitchen.
On July 10, 2017, victory was declared in the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS. After over eight months of fighting, much of the city lies in ruins. After three years of harsh ISIS rule, families in Mosul faced impossible choices throughout the battle: to flee across frontlines risking being targeted by snipers or stay and face hunger and Coalition air strikes. By the end of the battle, the fierce fighting had forced over 1 million people to flee their homes, with some neighborhoods totally emptied of life. 800,000 remain displaced. As we mark World Humanitarian Day – an annual tribute to the continuing dangers faced by aid workers and those they seek to serve – I had a chance to understand these challenges first-hand during my recent trip to Mosul.
Faced with the possibility of returning to their homes, Iraqi civilians have been quick to return to the city. In the east, over 90 percent of original inhabitants have come back to their neighborhoods first retaken from ISIS. In the west, where pockets of fighting continue and three-quarters of the city's infrastructure lies in ruins, rates of return are slower, but are ongoing nonetheless.
All in all, almost a quarter of a million people have already sought to secure their properties and begin to rebuild their lives, even while a harrowing 80 percent of the sites damaged and destroyed during the brutal fighting that garnered Mosul international attention were people's homes.
Over 90 percent of original inhabitants have come back to their neighborhoods first retaken from ISIS.
The picture painted from the ground, beyond statistics, by Iraqis themselves is all the more grim. Civilians we met report daily threats to their safety: unexploded bombs -- booby traps left by ISIS designed to kill and maim those attempting to flee -- are riddled across the city and pose an ongoing threat to innocent civilians. Our teams told me about three boys who lost their lives whilst out playing in a retaken area, after their games triggered a mine. One young man told me the story of his friends, members of his soccer team, who continued to play while being threatened by ISIS. They were shot and killed while trying to escape across the Tigris river.
Even accessing the most basic, life-saving services is a challenge, and the right support is absolutely critical to beginning a journey for recovery. Thousands of people are living without access to running water, as over five million liters of water is being trucked into the city every day to attempt to meet this need. While markets are recovering, job opportunities are limited, making it nearly impossible for people to earn a living. That's why the IRC is providing vital cash support to over 16,000 people in eastern and southern Mosul as returns continue.
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Mosul is not, however, the end of the story. While this city has been retaken from ISIS, an estimated 150,000 civilians still remain trapped under its control in the Iraqi cities of Tal Afar, Hawija and areas of western Anbar. Families are facing the same conditions seen in west Mosul -- interrupted supply routes, skyrocketing food prices and near total lack of basic supplies. It will be months before they are able to begin their journey to safety.
It is vital that the Government of Iraq, supported by the international community, establishes and funds activities that meet both ongoing humanitarian needs, and critical longer-term support for the people of Iraq.
As the Iraqi government, backed by the Global Coalition, turns their attention to rooting out ISIS from these areas, people will also face the same risks to their lives like harm and death from airstrikes and artillery fire, use as human shields and directed sniper fire from ISIS, and limited ability to flee and access safety. It is critical that the Iraqi government and the coalition prioritizes civilian protection in the ongoing battle against the Islamic State – including the respect for International humanitarian law.
Moreover – and much like the other counterinsurgency efforts in the region – as military efforts continue, a robust humanitarian response that meets basic and critical needs and lays the groundwork for recovery, cohesion, government stability and responsiveness is indispensable. Fallujah is the proof point that insurgency cannot be broken through military means alone. Yet, the humanitarian response in Iraq remains under-resourced, with the UN appeal less than halfway funded. It is vital that the Government of Iraq, supported by the international community, establishes and funds activities that meet both ongoing humanitarian needs, and critical longer-term support for the people of Iraq.
Without significant progress in meeting and protecting the urgent needs of Iraqi civilians, as well as laying the humanitarian groundwork for opportunity and stability, rebuilding this embattled country – and making sure that ISIS is not only driven out, but never returns - will be an impossible task.
Help the people of Mosul by donating to the IRC for World Humanitarian Day.