HASSAN SHAM CAMP, Iraq (Reuters) - The U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive to oust Islamic State from Mosul forced Um Youssef to flee her home in the city’s historic quarter but, despite the government’s declaration of victory this week, she is in no rush to return.
The 27-year-old mother of five says she and her husband are waiting for the situation to stabilize, and they have no plans to leave their tent in a U.N. camp east of Mosul until they are convinced it is safe to go home.
“To return now when we don’t feel at ease, we won’t do it. I just want security,” she said on Thursday, surrounded by her young children. “I don’t want sectarianism like before. I want something better than before, not to repeat the past.”
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State (IS) in Mosul on Monday after nearly nine months of devastating urban warfare, though Iraqi forces have continued to clash with militant holdouts.
Yet authorities have not prepared a post-battle plan for governance and security in Mosul, officials say.
Critics accuse the Shi‘ite Muslim-led government of failing to offer a substitute for policies that alienated Mosul’s Sunni Muslim majority following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
That has left many of the 300,000 residents still sheltering in camps on Mosul’s outskirts wondering when, or even if, they should return to Iraq’s second-largest city.
Um Youssef told Reuters that relatives who had stayed in the city keep telling her she is better off staying put.
“In Mosul, when the sun sets, everyone locks their door and doesn’t go out,” she said. Her house, like many in the Old City, was heavily damaged in the fighting but she is hopeful it can be repaired.
Snipers fired through an upstairs room “like a sieve”, she said, and a bomb went off next door. Islamic State fired mortars at civilians fleeing toward advancing Iraqi government forces, including her neighbor who was killed.
The family spent the last two days in the Old City huddled in a cellar alongside 10 other civilians with only well water and some wheat for sustenance, too terrified to go outside.
“MOSUL EXHAUSTED US”
Since sweeping through large swathes of northern and western Iraq in 2014 and declaring a “caliphate” over that area and parts of Syria, Islamic State has lost most of that territory. Mosul was the largest city ever to come under its rule.
A reign of terror followed under which the ultra-hardline jihadist group’s opponents were executed, such “crimes” as smoking a cigarette were punishable by public whipping, and music, television and the internet were banned.
Civilian activity has quickly returned to much of Mosul and work is underway to repair damaged homes and infrastructure, something the United Nations estimates will initially cost more than $1 billion and take more than a year in western neighborhoods where the fighting was most intense.
Newly trained local police are deployed in Mosul alongside the military, but insecurity remains a part of daily life - a series of car bombs have already gone off close to civilians in areas previously declared “liberated”.
The security forces rely on a list of names and witness testimonies to identify suspected IS members, every day picking up men who managed to blend in with fleeing civilians in the fog of war and formed sleeper cells.
Um Horeb, a 60-year-old woman from the Jabour tribe, appeared traumatized by months of violence as she lay on the ground of her tent. Both her feet are heavily bandaged from shrapnel wounds incurred in a bombing which she said killed all her male relatives.
As militants retreated deeper into the city, giving way to the Iraqi advance, Um Horeb also moved homes several times, ultimately ending up in the Maydan district where some insurgents are making their final stand.
She was evacuated four days ago but now, she says, she wants to stay with relatives in Iraq’s nearby autonomous Kurdistan region. “Mosul has left us exhausted. I don’t ever want to return. I don’t have anyone in Mosul,” she said.
As for Um Youssef, she is settling into an inconvenient but relatively safe life away from her hometown.
Sweltering summer temperatures regularly approach 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), but she says her basic needs are met and she has even enrolled her children in a school at the camp.
Asked if she was optimistic about the future, she said: “God willing. I must be, for my children.”
Editing by Michael Georgy/Mark Heinrich