For more than a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians still trapped inside ISIS controlled portions of Mosul, threats of death from coalition air strikes or Islamist Extremists aren’t the only things to worry about, as resources continue to dwindle.

“There is hardly any food, water, electricity, fuel. These civilians are living in an increasingly worsening situation of penury and panic because they are surrounded by fighting.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Iraq, Bruno Geddo explained.

“These civilians are basically held as human shields in the Old City,” Geddo said of Mosul.

ISIS has been herding civilians into their operational areas as part of an effort to shield themselves from attack, using them as human shields against Iraqi Security Forces and counting on their presence to limit the effectiveness of coalition air strikes.  Repeated reports of ISIS fighters gunning down men, women, and children in the streets as they attempt to flee combat zones have demonstrated that, for these desperate people, their only hope is a swift conclusion to the fight against ISIS.

“The civilian population is being moved by fighters with them to be used as human shields, and… ISIS snipers continue to aim at people trying to flee,” Geddo told reporters at the Palais des Nations. “They are risking their lives if they stay and if they flee.”

Iraqi forces successfully retook the eastern portion of Mosul, ISIS’ defacto capital in Iraq, this January.  The offensive to retake the older, western portion of the city started nearly a month later, and has seen slow progress due to the narrow streets and heavy fighting.

Mosul “is a very dense labyrinth, a maze of narrow alleyways where fighting will have to be done on foot, house by house,” said Geddo.

Despite the difficulties, more than a hundred thousand civilians are said to have escaped Western Mosul since May, thanks to the advance of government forces within the city.  American commanders are now calling victory in Mosul an “inevitability,” which would effectively end the ISIS foothold in Iraq – but challenges will undoubtedly remain once the fighting finally stops.

Among the challenges Iraqis will face in a post-ISIS Mosul is how to once again establish a cohesive society.  Many of the ISIS fighters that took the city are local Iraqis, some with family members that fled, or found themselves trapped, under ISIS rule.

“Collective punishment means in a deeply tribal society that you see evictions, destruction of property, confiscation of property for families perceived as being associated with ISIS because one family member might have been having that link.” Geddo explained.

“This is a very critical point for the future of Iraq. Because it is essential to uphold the rule of law, to pursue those who committed crimes through the court system, the judicial system, rather than applying tribal custom,” he added.

For the time being, survival is likely the only thing on the minds of some 100,000 innocent people trapped amidst the fight for Mosul, but as the shadow of ISIS fades over the “Old City,” those who live to tell the tale will be faced with the difficult task of rebuilding, and of learning to trust their neighbors once again.


Image courtesy of Reuters