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Aid Workers Worry About Civilians Trapped In Mosul


Thousands of residents who've been trapped by the Islamic State in the areas around Mosul have fled as Iraqi and Kurdish forces fight to take back Iraq's second-biggest city. Yesterday, Turkish forces got in the fight, firing on ISIS positions.

To get a sense of what those refugees are experiencing and what's ahead for the many more - possibly hundreds of thousands more who are expected to flee - we turn to Ruaridh Villar of Save the Children via Skype. Good morning.

RUARIDH VILLAR: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, I gather you have been visiting some of the camps where civilians around Mosul have fled to. Describe the conditions for us.

VILLAR: Well, that's right. I'm just back from the town of Qayyarah, which is about 50 miles to the south of Mosul. I'm very close, indeed, to the front line with IS fighters. Now, this town is veiled in a plume of thick, dark black smoke from - smoke from oil wells that IS fighters set alight when they retreated from the town. And the whole town is covered in a dusting of black grime. And we met children and mothers, and they were covered in it. Children's hands were black. Their feet were black. Their hair was matted.

And mothers told me that they're deeply worried about the health, now, of their children. The children are coughing. And they told me their bodies were covered in rashes. And right now the area designated by the United Nations as a safe area for displaced people to be is one that is filled with smoke from oil wells.

MONTAGNE: Have you talked to families, as they've emerged, to find out if they're coming out together? Or are some families separated from each other as they flee Mosul?

VILLAR: Well, one thing that struck us was there was a very clear picture. It was lone mothers with their children. And mother after mother told us that as the Iraqi army approached their village, IS had taken away their husbands and their brothers. And they had been left alone with their children. Now, some mothers said that when the Iraqi army arrived, they took them away immediately with just the clothes on their backs. And they didn't even have time to take their identity documents.

The village - villages and towns around Mosul, where we're seeing people flee from now, have been under the control of Islamic State fighters. Now, this is a situation where the possession of a SIM card for a telephone leads to execution. Any hint of an attempt to flee or sympathy for the Iraqi coalition forces would similarly lead to execution. So many of these families could not make preparations to leave before the conflict swept over them.

But the other thing I should mention is that right now, we're just not seeing people fleeing from inside Mosul city itself. These are the towns and villages to the south, to the north. And that's what we're responding to at the moment. But it's not a clean conflict. It's not some smooth siege around Mosul city itself. There are front lines, and there are small battles all the way up the 200-kilometer corridor leading to Mosul itself.

MONTAGNE: And is there any difference between - we're talking about Mosul, a very big city - between, say, the north and the south? That is, are there significant differences between the readiness of some areas to provide shelter?

VILLAR: Well, right now there isn't shelter ready. That's the problem. We know there are at least half a million children trapped inside Mosul right now. We don't know when, how many and in what direction they're going to flee. But we have maybe 60,000 shelter places ready for people who might escape.

Now, we're expecting potentially up to a million people to flee. That's just simply not good enough. We've known this is a potential risk for months now. But international donors have not provided the funding that agencies need.

MONTAGNE: Of all the families that you have met since this began in recent days, is there one story that has really stuck with you?

VILLAR: Yes, I met one mother. And she told me that her husband had refused to join IS. Fighters had arrived. They'd taken all the household belongings out of her home, and they burnt them in front of them and then abducted her husband. It was at that point, she and her eight children decided to flee. And they'd had to pay a hundred dollars at every village they reached just so the local people would tell them a safe route through the mine fields.

And we gave her water and emergency supplies. She had nothing. And she said to me, look, thank you. But what I need most right now is an education for my children. They're clever. They've been out of school for two years, and I want them to go back to school. And that really struck me because we often think about food and water being the priority in a response like this. But children have been out of school for two years. Parents have been terrified about sending their children to school, which is being run by IS and based around extreme violence.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

VILLAR: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Ruaridh Villar of Save the Children, speaking to us from Erbil, Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.