Mother of 13 recalls horror of Telafar escape
Family endures arduous three-day trek to escape battle for control of Iraqi city, while thousands more remain trapped by fighting.
BADOUSH, Iraq – Hafiza Ismail*, 43, sits dazed and exhausted at the Badoush mustering site, some 10 kilometres northwest of Mosul, having just led her large family on a hellish three-day journey on foot to escape the fighting for control of the Iraqi city of Telafar.
Carrying and cajoling her 13 offspring – the eldest, a 17 year-old and the youngest, just a toddler, barely able to walk – the family trudged for days, forced to sleep rough, drink unsafe water and rely on the kindness of strangers for food in order to survive.
“We asked people along the way for directions. Some gave us bread,” Hafiza says, struggling to recall the details through her fatigue. “Then we followed the Tigris River. We had no food. We drank from the river. I gave my children water from the river because we had nothing else with us.”
She recounts the horror of encountering bodies lying in the open along their route, not knowing who they were or how they died, and quickly shepherding her children past them. “The people were just lying there, men and women,” she says quietly, her head bowed.
They made their escape last week from Abu Maria village just east of Telafar, when the sound of planes and helicopters overhead signalled the start of fighting to retake the area from the armed groups that have controlled the district since 2014.
"We had no food. We drank from the river ... we had nothing else with us."
“It was loud and we were afraid the house would collapse on us, so we left with only the clothes we had on,” she says. While those who attempt to leave areas controlled by armed groups often face severe punishment or even execution, Hafiza believes the fact they had nothing, and there were so many children, meant they were not targeted.
The battle for control of Telafar, some 65 kilometres west of Mosul, began on August 20. With a pre-conflict population estimated at around 200,000, since April this year more than 40,000 people have fled the area, with many living in camps sheltering other displaced families mainly from Mosul.
People leaving Telafar report having to walk long distances in scorching heat to reach safety, often with no food or water and at great personal risk. Those arriving at mustering points such as Badoush are physically exhausted and dehydrated, with large numbers having sustained wounds from sniper fire and exploding mines.
Humanitarian agencies have been unable to access to Telafar since 2014. It is estimated that thousands could remain trapped in the city. Conditions are reported to be dire, with food and water running out, a lack of electricity and diminishing health facilities.
“What am I going to do now? How am I going to survive? We don’t even have a home to go back to.”
Hafiza’s husband was killed by sniper fire three months before they fled, and they struggled to survive with only bread to eat and 250 litres of water to last them for two months. “It was disastrous. No one cooked with oil as it was too expensive, and there was no fruit or vegetables,” she says.
“There were some health services, but we had no money to pay for medicines. Drugs and consultations were only free for the families of the extremists,” she adds.
Hafiza and her children will spend the night at Hammam Al-Alil transit site, where, in the last week alone, UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – has provided shelter and other basic essentials to some 9,000 Iraqis displaced by the recent fighting in Telafar.
From there, many will be sheltered in newly opened camps – such as Nimrud, which opened on Saturday, built by the government and managed by UNHCR – and provided with food and household items.
Still in shock from her recent ordeal, the events of the past few months appear to overwhelm her as she thinks of her husband and holds her face in her hands. “What am I going to do now? How am I going to survive? We don’t even have a home to go back to.”
*Name changed for protection reasons