MOSUL, Iraq — The dark clouds had opened up once again,drenching Youssef Abut and Tarek Abbas as they waited at a bus terminal outsideMosul with hot food for weary travelers.
Rain had long since turned the ground into a muddy quagmire, a further obstacle for the terrified civilians fleeing this embattled city in droves. It has become a war zone where neighborhoods may be destroyed in order to save them, after a fashion, from the occupiers of the so-called Islamic State.
On March 17, according to multiple reports, coalition airstrikes on Mosul’s al-Jadidah district led to buildings collapsing on top of scores of people.
Such are the risks in the dense urban landscape on thewestern side of the Tigris River that hundreds of families leave Mosul everyday, walking for miles before they are picked up by army trucks and driven tothe terminal at a crossing near the village of Athbah.
When a truck pulls up, Youssef and Tarek remove the lids from two huge vats filled with bean stew and steaming rice. While the families dismount, the two men ready ladles and polystyrene lunch boxes, and open plastic bags filled with flatbread.
As the disheveled Moslawis file past, a rushed distribution ensues. Boxes arefilled and thrust into the hands of women in black abayas, given to bearded men,and distributed to exhausted children lugging heavy bags. The rain continues topour down, diluting the stew and soaking the bread.
Soldiers soon guide the families to buses that drive them to displacement camps, allowing Youssef and Tarek to catch their breath. They are elderly men with leathery faces, white beards and scarves wrapped around their heads. They are dressed in stained beige combat fatigues. But while their attire points to long stints in warzones, they are not fighters.
They are members of the “Diwaniyah Civil Committee,” a volunteer organizationthat has come to Mosul to help its civilians.
Located 150 kilometers south of Baghdad, Diwaniyah is deepin the largely Shia south of the country, and men of the civil committee makeno secret of their religious affiliation. Instead, they point to the words ofGrand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia and themost senior cleric in Shia Islam, as inspiration for their charitable work.
“Sistani told us that we have to help the Sunni people, so we followed his call,” says Youssef.
Relying on donations collected in their home town, 22volunteers have come to provide food and water to civilians and soldiers alike intwo shifts. To the soundtrack of religious songs blasting out of powerfulspeakers, they work tirelessly to prepare the food distributed at the edge ofthe Baghdad-Mosul highway.
Occasionally, when the stream of civilians pouring out ofMosul is interrupted, they break into dance.
These efforts by Shiite volunteers run counter to the common narrative of thewar, which is framed by Iraq’s sectarian divide.
When ISIS stormed across the Syrian border in 2014, it benefitted from Sunniresentment caused by the discriminatory policies of then-Prime Minister Nourial Maliki. Drawing its recruits from Sunnis in Iraq and abroad, the groupmanifested is sectarian hatred with the barbaric murder of 1,700 Shia army recruitsat the Camp Speicher military base. In response, Shia militia groups deployedto fight ISIS have killed, tortured and abducted Sunni civilians throughout theconflict.
Youssef and Tarek have suffered not only from the post-2003 years of bloody sectarian civil war, but also from the marginalization of Iraq’s Shia majority in Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated dictatorship.
But in Mosul, where the Iraqi military and the U.S. backedcoalition are engaged in a lethal contest with its cornered and fanaticaladversary, Shia charitable organizations are some of the few organizationsdelivering aid deep into the contested western half of city. Their trucks aresome of the only civilian vehicles seen in the liberated areas of the west,bringing food to the troops and the civilians that have remained in theirhomes.
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The Shia organizations are not a new phenomenon in Iraq. “Wehave been doing this everywhere, Beiji, Ramadi, Fallujah….” saysYoussef, reeling off the key battles fought against ISIS in his homeland.
He is now serving food to the needy as the battle for Mosulreaches its final stages. The Iraqis completed the eastern half of the city inJanuary. They reached the outskirts of west Mosul, which is separated from theeast by the Tigris river, on February 23. They have advanced steadily towardsthe city’s core, and now stand at the edge of the historic old town, whichremains in ISIS hands alongside Mosul’s northwest.
The work of the volunteers is important. Supplies have not been able to reachwest Mosul since the city was surrounded soon after the campaign to retake itwas launched in October last year, and foodstuff have dwindled. With little tofall back on, residents who chose to remain in the liberated parts of the westbank rely on what is brought in.
The Iraqi government’s civilian personnel and internationalaid agencies are nowhere to be seen inside the city, and it falls to volunteersand soldiers to provide a lifeline.
Apart from the committees and Muslim Aid, a charity that delivers somesupplies, it is the military that does what it can to help. Soldiers habituallyhand over as many of their rations as they can, and the military’s supplyvehicles never leave the city with as much as a piece of bread.
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In a small but well-kept flat in the Tayaran neighbourhoodnear Mosul airport, Mohammed Kassem and his wife Nour are struggling to makeends meet. Mohammed had just opened a women’s fashion shop when ISIS took overMosul in June 2014. His business venture did not comply with the jihadists’prudish misogyny, and he was forced to close the shop.
He turned to driving a taxi to provide for his wife and two young children. Butwhen the Iraq troops advanced into west Mosul, ISIS fighters took his taxi toblock the road, and the vehicle was destroyed. Without cash reserves he wasunable to amass provisions before the siege, and the family relies on themilitary for survival.
“The Federal Police give us food and water. If the police left for two days we would starve,” says Mohammed.
The Federal Police is a paramilitary outfit that fights alongside Iraqi Special Forces known as the Golden Division in west Mosul. More so than the Golden Division, the police and their special weapons and tactics units are drawn from Iraq’s Shia population.
Aid agencies are critical of the Federal Police and its elite Emergency Response Division, who are accused of calling in artillery fire and air strikes far more frequently than during the battle for the east bank, resulting in a far higher rate of civilian casualties.
But once an area has been taken, they lend a helping hand to those who have not left the city for a camp.
“We are providing the civilians with food and all other kinds of assistance,” says Federal Police Sergeant Hussain Abdulkhader, whose platoon is manning a mortar battery set up at the entrance of Mohammed’s street. Seven families remain in the street, says the sergeant, who estimates that about a quarter of the population has stayed in Tayaran.
With conditions in west Mosul dire, most civilians flee assoon as soon as they can. Over 100,000 people have fled the battle so far,according to the International Rescue Committee.
On the eve of the battle beginning in October, the United Nations warned that up to a million people could flee the fighting, overwhelming the humanitarian sector’s ability to accommodate them in displacement camps.
That worst-case scenario was avoided during the fighting onthe east bank, where around 160,000 fled the city in total. But the exodus inthe west is fast filling up camps, and failure to provide aid for civiliansinside the city will add to the strain on capacity outside.
Food is not the only shortage making life difficult in west Mosul. Other than military field hospitals that are supported by a handful of small NGOs, whose staff are often volunteers, there is little help for civilians in need of medical attention.
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At an ERD field hospital in an affluent part of Tayaran, an old man is lying on a stretcher while a female nurse inserts the needle of a drip into his veins. His wife watches intently as the liquid slowly flows into his system, rejuvenating his creaking body.
“They are hungry, dehydrated and stressed. There is no aid coming into the area. We even give them our food, but we don’t have enough,” says Sulsa, the nurse, who has volunteered to help at the field hospital.
Those who make it out of Mosul are fed not only by the gregarious men from Diwaniyah, but also by local tribes. Standing on the tarmac of the road to avoid sinking into the mud, Sheikh Hassan Agub al Mrir observes his tribesmen handing out water, sugary drinks, and food to the families dismounting from the trucks at Athbah.
The sheikh is the head of the Laheb, a small tribe near the town of Qayyarah, which was under ISIS control until last August. The Laheb are still reeling from two years of jihadi occupation, but they come to Athbah as often as they can, whenever they raise enough funds among the tribe to pack a few trucks with aid.
“Everyone gives according to their ability,” says the sheikh. Other local tribes, such as the more influential Jubour tribe, also come to the aid of the city folk in their hour of need, according to al Mrir.
“We have a nomad tradition, and we are proud to help,” says the sheikh.
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