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Iraq: Qayyarah emergency site grows with surge in new arrivals from Western Mosul

Iraq Mosul by DRC
Firja is one of 50,000 people fleeing Mosul who have gathered in the camp at the Qayyarah Airstrip south of Iraq’s largest city. © DRC.

Shielding her eyes from the bright Iraqi sun, 80-year-old Firja struggled to stand and greet us outside her new tent in the sprawling Qayyarah Airstrip emergency site some 100 km south of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. It’s tough to imagine how hard it was for this great-grandmother to flee on foot from a village held by Islamic State (IS), along with her family and hundreds of thousands of others seeking safety from months-long military operations to retake Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city and under IS control since 2014.

Delawin Mesfin from DRC

By Delawit Mesfin, Communications Officer, Danish Refugee Council @DRC_dk

Despite her visible exhaustion, Firja was determined to tell us her story of escape and how with white flags in hand, she and 14 family members decided they had to leave when they saw neighbours and relatives lying dead in the streets – caught in the crossfire between the militants and advancing government forces. Exact figures are difficult to determine, but reports of civilian casualties in the conflict are high, especially as operations to fully retake Mosul advance further into the city’s densely populated western neighbourhoods.

The violence has triggered a sharp increase in the rate of displacement towards emergency camps primarily in areas south and east of the city. With new arrivals of civilians fleeing violence in Mosul, the Qayyarah Airstrip Emergency Site alone hosts nearly 50 000 people in almost 10 000 tents – making it one of the largest camps sheltering displaced Iraqis fleeing the conflict.

With support from the EU Humanitarian Aid the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) oversees management of the Airstrip camp where vulnerable Iraqis have found access to shelter and safety.
Sitting down to rest outside her tent, Firja’s weathered hands and face told of difficult village life made even harder by the conflict.

“Survival in the village became even harder after the start of fighting in October,” she said, describing the struggle she and her family faced in accessing scarce food and goods.

Supply routes to areas under IS control were cut off in the period before military operations began, while on the inside, reports emerged of militants cracking down on communications and confiscating supplies from civilians, resulting in an even more desperate situation for vulnerable families.

“We were lucky because we had livestock and we survived on milk, yogurt, and a bit of bread that we baked at home,” Firja explained.

Lacking contact with the world outside their village for over four months, Firja said she and her family were shocked and surprised when security forces arrived as part of their push towards Mosul.

“The government said it was coming for us, but we didn’t know when or how long it would take. We were just praying for someone to come,” she continued.

Firja and her family’s story of flight from Mosul is just one among those of the more than 300 000 other people forced to flee their homes since the beginning of the Mosul operations in October 2016.  Close to 85 percent of those civilians are currently seeking safety and shelter in emergency camps and sites like the Qayyarah Airstrip where DRC registers new arrivals and coordinates with other humanitarian organisations to ensure people receive tents, food, water and medical attention. However, as the conflict continues, more civilians are expected to flee their homes.

While Firja and her family are happy to be safe, they are concerned about relatives and neighbours left behind.

“They’re still there and we worry about what will happen to them,” she said, adding that she’s also lost contact with two of her daughters. “I have no idea if they’re dead or alive or where they are.”