ShelterBox’s Alice Jefferson has just returned from Iraq. Here in a screening and aid distribution centre south west of Mosul Airport, she met people who have just left behind one of the most intense battles on earth, still raging just a few miles away. They may have lost loved ones, their homes, their possessions. But they have escaped with their lives.
Salamiyah is a surreal place. A former gas depot just a few miles from Mosul airport. Up to 14,000 people a day have passed through the screening site. It is the first step on a road that is taking the battle-weary of Mosul towards some sort of safety.
After security screening families receive initial basic support and their first meal. Most will then be taken by bus to camps, or, if they prefer, to relatives in the surrounding area. Aid is also being given to host families, and to communities that have also lived under two years of Islamic State rule. The flow of people through the site now requires a continuous 24 hour bus service for onward travel.
Alice spoke with a grandmother who now lives in Salamiyah village. ShelterBox respects their wishes not to be named, and in some cases not to be photographed. Despite all their hardships she was smiling and happy to discuss her situation with the team.
‘We have lived under Daesh (Islamic State) control for over two years’ the grandmother told Alice. When asked where her family is currently living she said, ‘We stay in the Institute with over a hundred other families.’ The Institute is a collective centre in the village of Salamiyah providing shelter to internally displaced families who were once held under Islamic State control. ‘I want to go home,’ she says poignantly, ‘But for now it is not possible.’
The grandmother and her family are from a nearby town called Gwer, on the banks of the Great Zab River, a strategic link between the cities of Tikrit and Mosul that flows into the Tigris. Gwer was captured by Islamic State in August 2014. Most schools were closed then, and children such as her granddaughter have missed out on education for over two years. ‘She has not been able to attend school, and there is also no schooling available here either.’
The town was retaken by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but the bridge and key supply route across the river was badly damaged by Islamic State fighters. Fighting has continued for months and the town is now heavily fortified.
As Alice was talking to grandmother and granddaughter another family came forward keen to tell their story. They also dared not give names, and would not be photographed. They came from Al-Shuhada, a district in Western Mosul retaken by advancing Iraqi forces on 8 March after days of heavy fighting. The mother said, ‘I was displaced just four days ago.’
Alice asked if the young boy waiting quietly by her side was her son. She said ‘Yes, I also have two daughters – three children with no father.’ Alice asked what had happened to their father. ‘Daesh have been in control for two years. Our family lived in Mosul before, but I have family that originally came from this village. Before they came into the city my husband was working with the police service, collecting intelligence on Daesh.’
She reached for her tissue and was visibly upset at the memory. ‘When the city was taken my husband was murdered by Daesh. They took him away and cut him many times. He was then thrown into the landfill. No burial.’
His brutal murder took place more than two years ago, and since then the family has had to live under the rule of the people that killed their husband and father. They escaped as soon as they could, crossing the front line into Federal Iraq-controlled areas. They were screened before being bussed south to Salamiyah, choosing to not go into the government-run displacement camps as she had family connections in the village. This support structure is vital now she has lost her husband and her home.
Alice asked if the family will return to West Mosul. ‘No it is not likely that we will return,’ she said. ‘There is nothing left for us in Mosul’.
Alice Jefferson says, ‘As the distribution continued I spoke to a number of other women in the line. A startlingly common theme began to emerge. Husbands, fathers and sons were missing.’
The danger of freezing nights has now succumbed to rainy days, where dust is quickly churned to mud underfoot, and soon there will be the prospect of annual desert storms. Iraq can have an inhospitable climate, and shelter from the strong winds is essential, not a luxury. The weather was kind when Alice and colleagues visited Salamiyah, but on the previous day planned visits had to be cancelled due to severe rainfall.
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