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In Iraq's Mosul, a school becomes a field hospital
By Edouard Guihaire
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 26, 2017

Escaping IS-held Mosul, residents head into unknown
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) March 24, 2017 - Bilal Abduljabbar clambers onto the back of an Iraqi army truck with his two teenage children to start the final stage of their escape from war-torn west Mosul.

"Where we came from, there was no water and no food, just fighting," the 43-year-old says. "And where we're going, there's no future."

A rumble of mortar fire resonates in the distance as hundreds of people trudge up a rain-drenched street under a heavy grey sky of smoke and clouds.

Their nightmare of life under the Islamic State group's rule is over. But having escaped Iraq's second city after months of heavy fighting, they are starting a life of displacement and uncertainty.

Iraqi forces launched a vast offensive on October 17 to oust IS from the northern city.

They completed the recapture of eastern Mosul in January and last month launched a renewed assault on the west, under jihadist control since IS seized it in 2014.

Weeks later, some areas prised from the jihadists' grip are a scene of devastation, and the Iraqi government says around 180,000 civilians have escaped the city's west.

The latest escapees walk along a road secured by Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service and lined with buildings pulverised by fighting.

Yassir Ahmed, 35, carries a young child in his arms as he walks, his back bent from fatigue. Others drag metal carts loaded with children or the elderly, their faces lined with stress and fatigue.

In suitcases and plastic bags, they carry the few belongings they were able to grab as they fled. Some are empty handed.

IS "detained us for 15 days and wouldn't let us leave," says a man in a grey tracksuit stained with mud.

"Last night, they retreated under pressure from the security forces. We escaped at about six o'clock this morning."

- Snipers on roofs -

Staying in western Mosul meant living without food, without water and in constant fear of the jihadists.

"There were snipers on a warehouse, shooting at people," says 27-year-old Adel Abdul Karim.

After hours on foot, the escapees reach a bus station on the outskirts of the city, where they wait to board buses and army trucks.

But the situation borders on chaos. Desperate to leave Mosul, the crowd rushes towards the vehicles, elbowing for a place.

There are cries and tears. Some try to negotiate, others shout angrily. A woman in a black niqab veil falls into the mud after vainly trying to force her way through.

"We are dealing with women and children first, but we have a hard time managing things," said a member of the Iraqi security forces. "Look! There are so many people!"

Crammed together in the back of a truck, dozens of people wear expressions of relief on their tired faces as the truck pulls away.

They will head for one of several camps set up around the city to house the displaced. They will receive food, blankets and aid.

But many fear what comes next. There is little certainty about when they will be able to return home -- or if their homes will still be standing when they do.

Fifteen-year-old Mohammed enthusiastically helps the staff of a makeshift hospital set up in the bullet-scarred school in west Mosul where he himself studied before jihadists seized Iraq's second city.

The Islamic State group used the school as part of its programme of indoctrination until it lost control of the area during a major Iraqi offensive launched last month, and it is now used to treat people wounded in the ongoing battle for the western side of the city.

Like many buildings in Mosul, the school bears the signs of warfare.

In addition to being pockmarked with bullets, most of the windows are broken, walls are cracked and the floor is littered with bullet casings.

The entrance hall has been transformed into an emergency room, which is stocked with only limited equipment but still allows for first aid to be administered to the wounded and sick.

One young man lies on a narrow bed, his face pale and tired.

"A sniper (from IS) fired at him but missed, so he started to run, and the sniper shot again and hit him," says Fathi Waad, one of the victim's relatives.

"This is the third time that someone in the family has been hit by a sniper," he adds.

Each day, the hospital looks after around 100 patients, both civilians and security personnel, often the victims of gunshot wounds, says Aqil Karim, a medic from the elite Counter-Terrorism Service.

A dust-covered red pickup suddenly stops in front of the school to deliver a semi-conscious old man whose foot has been injured.

- American dream -

Unlike the previous patient, he is not the victim of violence, but rather of an accident, and he is also suffering from dehydration.

As soon as he arrives, he is carried to a bed, where his wound is washed, disinfected and dressed.

Treating him is just as important as tending to those wounded by war in a city where the fighting has destroyed many medical facilities.

More than 200,000 Iraqis have fled west Mosul since Iraqi forces began the assault to retake the area on February 19, the government says, but hundreds of thousands more are still in danger inside the city.

With school lessons unlikely to resume at any time soon, several former pupils have returned to the building to help the medical staff.

Indifferent to the sound of gunfire and explosions outside, one of them rushes around helping out where he can, dressed in a tracksuit with a blue hood.

Mohammed has barely finished unloading a delivery of equipment when he is already back inside handing out food rations.

"We cook, clean the equipment, and when wounded people arrive we help them," says the slender teenager, who is delighted no longer to be in class under the jihadists.

"Our teachers were hard on us. They'd beat us," he says. "And they'd ask us to pledge allegiance to IS."

But Mohammed does not see a future for himself in the ruins of a city disfigured by months of heavy fighting. Instead, he yearns to join his relatives in the United States.

His dream job once there? "Doctor" of course.

Lowest bidders threaten Nepal's quake-hit heritage
Kathmandu (AFP) March 24, 2017
Caretaker Deepak Shrestha padlocked shut the quake-ravaged remains of the Trailokya Mohan Narayan temple in Nepal's capital Kathmandu to keep out the contractors who are meant to be rebuilding it. The 17th century monument's three-tiered pagoda completely collapsed in a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the Himalayan nation in April 2015, leaving the main statue standing exposed on a high pl ... read more

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