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For Mosul displaced, the added pain of divided families
By Rouba El Husseini
Khazir, Iraq (AFP) Dec 1, 2016

Heavy rain piles misery on Mosul displaced
Khazir, Iraq (AFP) Dec 1, 2016 - Abdelwahed Mahmud dug gullies around his tent in northern Iraq Thursday after heavy overnight rain flooded Khazir camp, the latest hardship to hit the thousands of families displaced around Mosul.

"This is to stop the rain, if we don't dig these, it will keep coming in," said the 35-year-old, using the back of his spade to shore up the sides of his tent.

Around 74,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since tens of thousands of Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to retake Mosul, the last major bastion in Iraq of the Islamic State group.

The first major rain storms of the winter swept the Mosul area late Wednesday, miring the displaced gathered in the crowded camps dotting the region.

Earlier this week, the first sub-zero temperatures hit the region and on Thursday some families in Khazir camp woke up to find their foam mattresses soaked in muddy water.

"We are cursed," said Samar Lafi, a woman with decaying teeth who did not know her year of birth but looked in her mid-thirties.

"We don't put the heater on, we'd rather use the paraffin they are giving us to cook," said the mother of two, who was displaced twice since IS conquered large parts of Iraq in 2014.

People trudged along in the mud, carrying gas canisters and bottled water, or pushing wheelbarrows filled with basic goods down the camp alleys.

- Water in the tents -

Some wore plastic bags over their shoes to walk through the puddles while a group of children embraced the situation and played in the biggest pool of muddy water.

"This is how we live," said Waddah Abdelhadi, from Mosul's Intisar neighbourhood, extending his arms in a gesture of powerlessness and looking at the thousands of white tents around him.

"The water entered some tents, we wish they had put a concrete base under them or surfaced at least the main road to facilitate the movements of those coming back with from the shops," said the 28-year-old, who described himself as a poet.

The tents in Khazir, the largest of the camps set up for the people displaced by the Mosul offensive, stretch over more than a kilometre.

"It's very muddy inside the tents, and it's only going to get worse with the frosty weather," Abdelhadi said.

Camp manager Badreddin Najmeddin said 6,000 heaters were handed out in Khazir over the past two days.

The hundreds of thousands who remained in their homes inside Mosul face no better conditions however, with fierce fighting raging in the city.

The United Nations warned on Wednesday that up to 500,000 civilians inside Mosul were facing a shortage of drinking water that will have a "catastrophic impact."

Ihsan Ismail has spoken to his family just twice in a month. In the desperate flight from their village outside Mosul they were separated and are now confined to different camps for the displaced.

More than 70,000 people have fled their homes since Iraqi forces launched their offensive on October 17 to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, from the Islamic State group.

As if living under IS rule for more than two years and being forced from their homes were not enough, now some of the displaced are having to deal with the added burden of being separated from their families.

Security forces say measures are needed to ensure the jihadists do not infiltrate the camps that have sprung up around Mosul to house the displaced. But rights groups are concerned that the restrictions go too far.

Ismail, 18, fled his village of Abu Jarbua east of Mosul shortly after the offensive was launched, and an hour before his parents and little sister Nurhan were able to leave.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who are allied with Iraqi federal forces in the Mosul battle, took him to a camp at Khazir but his family was taken to another camp.

He has since only been able to speak to them twice.

"It's been a month like this... I miss them very much," Ismail said. "All I'm asking for is to rejoin them. What's the difference? ... A camp is a camp."

In nearly all of the camps set up to house the displaced, residents are forbidden from leaving and in some cases have had their mobile phones and identity cards confiscated.

"We are at war with terrorists who use all possible means to carry out attacks, and members of Daesh can hide themselves among the displaced and form clandestine cells," Jabar Yaur of the Kurdish interior ministry told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

- 'De facto detention' -

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about the restrictions being put on those forced from their homes, known as Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs.

"In the camps under Iraqi federal control, IDPs have no free movement at all, unless authorities decide to transfer them or send them back home," said Belkis Wille, HRW's senior Iraq researcher.

The situation is almost the same in camps controlled by Kurdish forces, with a few exceptions, like in the Debaga camp south of Mosul where the displaced are allowed to go to the neighbouring village if they leave behind a piece of identification, she said.

"This is a quite disturbing situation, the pattern is very dangerous," Wille said.

"It is de facto detention -- even if it is not detention, in reality it looks like detention."

Ismail is hardly alone -- three of his uncles have also been separated from their families.

Fawaz Khaled, a 42-year-old father of nine, said he and his two brothers also fled Abu Jarbua when Kurdish forces moved in to drive out the jihadists.

After arriving at a peshmerga checkpoint they were taken to Khazir and told their families would join them. They were instead taken to another camp, at Qimawa.

"We are in this situation since October 28 and nobody is listening to us," Khaled said, sipping tea in a tent at Khazir.

Shaima Ismail has not seen her two oldest boys since she also fled Abu Jarbua with her four children.

When they arrived at the peshmerga checkpoint, Mahmud, 16, and three-year-old Amani were allowed to stay with her in Khazir.

But Ahmad, 21, and Mohammed, 20, were taken to the Qimawa camp.

"I have begged them to bring me to my children, or to let them come here, but nobody will give me an answer," she said.

Her boys call just once a week, afraid that camp officials will discover their mobile phone.

"They tell me they are doing OK and then hang up," she said. "The worry is eating away at me."

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