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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Battle for Tal Afar: A new humanitarian tragedy unfolds in Iraq

Thousands have fled the city since Sunday, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IMO), with reports emerging of people dying after walking for days in 50°C heat to reach safety

Civilian men from Tal Afar wait to undergo security screening at a collection point for displaced people west of Mosul on August 12, 2017. Balint Szlanko / AP
Civilian men from Tal Afar wait to undergo security screening at a collection point for displaced people west of Mosul on August 12, 2017. Balint Szlanko / AP

Humanitarian aid workers on Wednesday urged Iraqi authorities to ensure safe passage for civilians fleeing Tal Afar and the surrounding communities, as reports emerged of people dying after walking for days in 50°C heat to reach safety.

Thousands have fled the city since Sunday, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IMO), when Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake Tal Afar from ISIL.

An estimated 50,000 civilians have now fled the city since April but approximately 30,000 remain trapped in the fighting, the United Nations says.

Caught between the two sides, those still inside the city have been pounded by Iraqi and US-led coalition aircraft for weeks, as well as intense artillery fire since Sunday.

“We fear that Iraqi civilians are likely to be held as human shields again and that attempts to flee could result in executions and shootings,” said Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson at the Office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, referring to tactics also used by ISIL fighters in the battle for Mosul.

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Read more:

Iraqi forces close in on ISIL-held Tal Afar

The battle for Tal Afar and why Shiite militias are involved

Iraq begins ground attacks on ISIL in Tal Afar

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One mother, from the village of Mzra'a near Tal Afar, told Oxfam she feared her husband was dead after ISIL took him as they fled.

“ISIS took my husband two days ago as we tried to escape," said Nahida Ali, whose name has been changed. "We wanted to leave a month ago but ISIS wouldn’t let us. If they saw a family leaving they would take the men. We saw a lot of people killed; that’s why we were so afraid."

“We are worried they will kill my husband. My son won’t stop crying because ISIS took his father and we don’t know where he is.”

Others told Oxfam they had left Tal Afar during the night as ISIL was preventing them from fleeing.

The anti-poverty organisation said it was calling on the Iraqi government to ensure that civilians can reach safety and receive the help they urgently need.

The UN and other humanitarian agencies are working to establish shelters for the displaced.

IOM’s two emergency displacement shelters — located about 60 kilometres south of Mosul — said they had received over 3,000 individuals. An estimated 1,500 individuals had been received at the Haj Ali site, while more than 1,700 individuals had arrived at Qayara.

"We are very concerned for the safety of civilians, both those inside the city of Tal Afar, and those who are attempting to flee," said IOM's spokesperson, Sandra Black.

"The weather is extremely hot, and families fleeing the conflict are forced to walk long distances, often 8 hours or more, to reach safety”.

But Oxfam reported civilians walking for even longer.

Nahida Ali said she had walked for two days in the blistering heat with no water to reach an Oxfam screening site in Badush, around 60 kilometres east of the city.

Another mother from Mzra'a, Ahlam Ibrahim, said the road to safety had been steep and rocky and that elderly people had died along the way.

“It was so hard to walk and the road smelled of dead bodies," she said. "I lost my voice because I was shouting at my children to stay with me. They were so scared.”

Ms Black said IOM medical staff had seen many cases of "dehydration, trauma injuries due to the violent fractures, and severe malnutrition among children who have been living in Tal Afar”.

Civilians who have fled Tal Afar report there is a lack of food, water and health supplies in the city.

Abu Zaid, who spoke with IOM staff at the Haj Ali shelter, said his family was trapped for nine months in Abu Maria village, located in the district of Tal Afar, without any access to food, goods or clothes. He didn't allow his children to go to school as ISIL had taken control of most of the schools in the village.

“We fled on 14 August from Abu Maria village, we walked for seven hours until we reached the Iraqi military. They took us to Hammam Al Alil and we stayed there for three days, but then we chose to go to Haj Ali because I have relatives there," he said.

"When we reached the Iraqi security forces, and then Hammam Al Alil, all the children received vaccinations and the rest of the family, a health check-up. As soon as we arrived at Haj Ali emergency site, we received a food package. There is water here, and IOM gave us a tent and non-food item kits as well as blankets and mattresses," he added.

Also on Wednesday, an Iraqi miliary commander told Associated Press that Iraqi forces had captured two neighbourhoods in Tal Afar from ISIL: Al Kifah Al Janoubi on the southwestern edge of Tal Afar, and Al Kifah Al Shamali on its northwestern edge.