Displaced persons arrive at the Chamakor Camp on the Khazir Front. Photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — With an average of 45,000 people fleeing western Mosul as Iraqi forces fight to retake densely-populated neighborhoods from ISIS, the top UN humanitarian representative to Iraq described the strain put on the humanitarian community in the country as overwhelming and nearing a breaking point.
“If pace of displacement accelerates further, to be absolutely frank, it’s going to stretch us to a breaking point,” Lise Grande told reporters in teleconference briefing on Thursday, adding that 45,000 people per week have been leaving the west.
OCHR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, stated that 13,350 people were displaced on March 3 alone.
“We’re literally constructing around the clock,” Grande said, summarizing that when there’s a plot ready and a tent on it, mattresses inside, water and sanitation, humanitarian organizations inform the military that site is ready.
Grande said 6,800 people left Mosul on Thursday, and there was space available for 24,000 people in displacement camps.
“Tomorrow, if 20,000 people come out [in one day], there’s our capacity,” Grande said.
The humanitarian situation on the west bank has been different than it was on the east bank in two important ways.
“The number of people that are coming out and the pace of the exodus is higher than it was in the east,” Grande said.
Secondly, Grande said: “It is still not clear that on the humanitarian side we have the resources we need in order to be able to respond for what is increasingly looking like a mass exodus.”
Military operations to recapture western Mosul began nearly a month ago on February 19 by the Iraqi armed forces, backed by the US-led international coalition against ISIS, and supported Hashd paramilitaries and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in surrounding areas.
Grande estimated that 120,000 people have left the “right bank” of what was Iraq’s second-largest city, where about 650,000 to 680,000 people remain.
“Whether you stay or whether you go, there are significant risks to civilians,” Grande said, adding those who chose to stay face extreme risks from crossfire, snipers and explosive hazards; while families who chose to leave are equally at risk: families get separated, ISIS targets them and there is a risk of explosive hazards.
Iraqi ground forces moved quickly through the outskirts of western Mosul in the first few days, but over the past few weeks they’ve slowed, having to clear tight alleys and what’s been described by commanders as “closet by closet.”
Rudaw correspondents embedded with Iraqi forces have said that tall buildings such as the Ashur Hotel have been used by ISIS snipers, which results in Iraqi fighter jets striking their positions.
“What appears to be happening in western Mosul, and I have to say appears because we’re not actually on the ground, so these are the reports that we receive from the families that are displaced,” Grande said.
“And one of the things that they are saying is that there appears to be much more destruction, which would imply a heavier use of artillery.”