MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - The battle for Mosul is all but over after nine months of devastating urban warfare between government forces and Islamic State militants, but Iraqi civilians are suffering in a humanitarian crisis of monumental scale.
More than one million people fled their homes in Mosul and nearby villages since the fighting started. Most of them are packed into camps in the countryside or have found shelter elsewhere.
Those who ventured back to Mosul found wrecked houses, destroyed schools and hospitals, and water and power shortages, alongside the threat of gunfire and booby-traps.
Whole neighborhoods of Iraq’s second city are reduced to the crumpled ruins of what were once homes and businesses -– much of the destruction due to air strikes and artillery by the U.S.-led coalition. Charred wrecks of cars litter the streets.
“The end of the battle for Mosul isn’t the end of the ordeal for civilians. The humanitarian situation not only remains grave, but could worsen,” the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of many international organizations and governments helping the relief and rehabilitation effort, said in a statement.
Overcoming the crisis is crucial to Iraq’s political future as it struggles to build stability, overcome sectarian rivalry, and emerge from grinding conflict since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
At the Al Salamiya refugee camp on the parched Plain of Ninevah, nearly 2,000 families live in tents. While happy to be safe from the ravages of Islamic State, who subjected Mosul to harsh rule for nearly three years, they are frustrated and worried about their future.
Muhamad Jasim, 44, was a laborer but fled with his wife and children from al-Kasik district six weeks ago in the final phases of the battle to recapture the city from Islamic State.
“Under Daesh (IS) it was very bad, no work, suffering, and they were very angry. We left behind a lot — car, house,” he said. “I was afraid for my kids. I had to leave.”
Sitting cross-legged in his tent, he complained forcefully. “We do not have money to buy things. There is nothing for us but to sit here. We don’t have enough food, we have to spend what money we have on vegetables, ice. The monthly food ration is not enough.” When did he think he might go home? “I have no idea.”
The Salamiya camp, mostly housing people from West Mosul and nearby villages, opened in late May under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Iraqi government.
It seems to be well-organized and well-supplied. There is a school and a clinic. Water supplies had been a problem but now a pipeline has been laid from Salamiya town. Residents are from all walks of life, from farmers to shop-keepers.
As camp manager Ali Saleh of the French agency ACTED walked down the main street, people approached him asking for jobs, help with finding a tent for relatives, or other problems.
“It is not easy. They are frustrated. This is the beginning. We’ll see in a couple of months,” he said.
Stalls and shops have sprung up selling nuts and pastries, fruit and vegetables, and household items. Although they are against the rules, the management is permitting them.
“A lot of people worked for a living before this and now they need financial support. If we close the shops, they will have nothing,” Saleh said.
At the clinic, Dr. Ahmed Yunis said ailments included fever, diarrhea, parasite infections and stomach pains. There were 300 consultations a morning, and from 15 to 100 in the evening.
Asked if they had supplies and equipment, he said: “Right now we don’t have any problems. We don’t know about the future.”
More than 300 women in the camp have lost their husbands and are acting as head of household. Some children are without parents, though most of these were taken in by relatives or other families in keeping with Arab tradition.
Several thousand people are without documents, such as national ID cards and birth and marriage certificates.
“Either Daesh did not issue documents or issued invalid ones. Others fled without documents,” said Nicolo Chiesa of Terre des Hommes Italy, who was working with local court officials to register people and reissue new papers.
Only 23 families have so far returned to Mosul from the camp. One of them came back, deputy manager Razhan Dler said.
“They said there was nothing for them in Mosul.”
Life in parts of Mosul is returning to normal, especially in the east, which was recaptured in January. Shops and markets are open but destruction left some areas looking like a moonscape.
Sporadic fighting still takes place as the last few ISIS fighters hold out in small pockets.
UNICEF delivers water to half a million people a day, including 3.3 million liters in and around East and West Mosul.
The city’s main hospital is a total ruin. The principal hospital serving West Mosul has returned to daily operations.
It deals with fewer war-related injuries but still gets several a day, Dr Abdulmohsen Mohammud said. “Now we are getting a lot of dehydrated kids, children with malnutrition,” he said.
Maternity cases are also a challenge. In the past two weeks they had 50 caeserean and 102 normal births.
UNICEF said that as fighting subsided, vulnerable unaccompanied children arrived at medical facilities and reception areas. Some babies were found in the debris.”Children’s deep physical and mental scars will take time to heal,” it said in a statement. “Some 650,000 boys and girls, who have lived through the nightmare ... paid a terrible price.”
The World Food Programme said thousands of families needed emergency food assistance to survive. The government and the international community must begin rebuilding Mosul and restore basic services immediately as tens of thousands of people were likely to return soon, aid organizations said.
“The Mosul victory is definitely the beginning of a new era in Iraq. We hope this new era will be an era of reconciliation and reconstruction,” the European Union ambassador to Iraq, Patrick Simonnet, told Reuters as he visited West Mosul.
Protection of civilians was a priority, he said, including avoiding collective punishment of suspected IS sympathizers. The government must investigate reports of revenge attacks and re-establish the rule of law, he said.
He said it was important for the EU and other governments and international agencies to remain committed to rebuilding Mosul for the next two to three years. “There’s a cost -– an important cost in our view -– of not doing anything.”
Only national reconciliation and political reform could address the root causes of Islamic State, he said.
In one optimistic sign, many schools have reopened, among them the Kadiz Abdulajad School in West Mosul, near the Old City where fierce fighting took place in the battle’s final stages.
Among the lessons, as well as reading, writing and maths, they are given classes on mine and explosives awareness.
Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Peter Millership