The morning dawned with an ominous grey sky, punctured by the muffled sounds of explosions in the distance. By Wednesday afternoon, a long-awaited moment had finally arrived: sights of the families grasping their first taste of freedom as the Iraqi Army breached the perimeter of Mosul on the eastern edge of the city.
It would be the first time government forces have set foot in the city since June 2014, when the Iraqi Federal Police suffered an embarrassing defeat. They abandoned their posts and effectively surrendered control of the city to an invading group of armed men who would eventually proclaim themselves the Islamic State but are known as Daesh.
Fierce clashes between the army and Daesh continued on Thursday, pushing into Mosul; a progress marked by each new highway sign showing directions for city districts. In an industrial area in Gogjali district, Iraqi forces captured a key building bearing the tall broadcast tower, amidst unpredictable counterattacks that could come at any moment.
In seizing Mosul, Daesh gained control over not just a huge stockpile of weapons and cash from the city’s banks and armouries, but in Iraq’s second largest city, they also gained a foundation to develop into a worldwide network. A network that has directed terrorist attacks in dozens of major cities, killing scores of people.
As the recent days of fighting have shown, the population of Mosul could also be used as a tool of war. On Monday, the United Nations warned that Daesh is using civilians as “human shields” by forcibly transferring them to areas in the line of fire.
As ground troops cautiously began their first push into the city from the eastern outskirts, it became apparent that Daesh is using precisely this strategy.
White flags flew over several buildings, and huddled groups of children could be seen waiting for the right moment to make a run for it amid bullets flying between the rooftops.
Jubilant outbursts at the arriving forces were tempered by the strictness of the Iraqi soldiers, tasked with the difficult job of sorting out civilians from a potential combatant trying to blend in.
There wasn’t a lot of room to breathe, as the area was still a war zone. As Iraqi soldiers moved street by street through Mosul’s eastern neighbourhoods, those leaving the area had few options.
Daesh’s militant members left civilians with few valuable possessions, cash or cell phones.
“I have family who could help me, but I don’t even know where they are or how I can contact them,” says Zeinab, a 29-year-old woman now relocated in a camp for displaced people set up 40 kilometres east of Mosul. Living in a tent with no more possessions that her family could carry, she is happy to be free. “Anything is better than living under their rules. It was like being in prison,” she says, watching over her children and waiting for her husband to complete the screening process required to enter the camp.
A group of civilians emerged from behind the gate of a building with a white flag hanging from its canopy window. As they tried to cross the road to reach an Iraqi Army humvee, shots rang out and ricocheted off the ground, forcing them to turn back.
Further back on the main road connecting Erbil and Mosul, large groups of civilians could be seen leaving the area.
Iraqi Army medics treated an 11-year-old girl for a gunshot wound and took her away in an ambulance.
The girl’s mother told TRT World that she had been shot by a sniper while the family ran toward Iraqi soldiers. She declined to give her name but said she was originally from nearby Hamdaniyah. She had been forced to relocate to Gogjali by men who claimed to be authorities of the Daesh.
Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish forces have so far been fighting a long-range war of artillery and air strikes, but as they enter Mosul, that may be changing. Entering into densely-populated areas marks a shift to come in the nature of the fighting. The closer Iraqi forces get to Mosul, the more civilians will be in the line of fire.
Author: Shawn Carrie