KHAZIR, Iraq (AP) — The U.N. refugee agency distributed aid on Monday to dozens of Iraqi families uprooted from their homes in and around the city of Mosul, warning that their needs will only increase as winter progresses and temperatures continue to fall below freezing.
UNHCR aid workers handed out kerosene heaters, jerry cans, plastic sheets and hygiene kits to about 30 families. Unlike in some areas inside Mosul where chaos erupted when hundreds of civilians overwhelmed aid trucks, the people lined up to get the aid in a camp in the town of Khazir, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of Mosul.
"We have received these items. But we need heating oil," said Haider Mahmoud Ahmed.
"They're here. Blankets, a heater, but we don't have water, drinking water. All the tankers around here are empty. There is no water in them. We want them to be filled so we can live," Ahmed added. "Yesterday we were freezing. There is no heating oil."
Some displaced are still haunted by what they experienced before leaving for the camp.
"It was raining mortars on us. There were snipers. And a rocket landed in the middle of the front yard. Inside the garage," said Abdullah Ahmed Saleh.
The UNHCR's senior public information officer, Caroline Gluck, said the aid items are part of emergency assistance "for families who've literally fled for their lives. Often most don't have anything apart from what they're wearing."
She added that temperatures during nighttime fall to below freezing and "it's really tough for these families."
The families are among the nearly 5,500 people living in tents in a camp east of Mosul, where the battle to retake the city from the Islamic State group is underway. So far, nearly 70,000 civilians have fled, according to U.N.
Inside eastern Mosul, civilians are cutting down trees and shrubs to use the wood for cooking and heating. While the area has largely been under Iraqi army control for nearly a month, electricity has not yet been restored and intermittent sniper fire and car bombs have prevented aid groups from delivering supplies to civilians trapped near the front lines.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians are estimated to still be inside Mosul as the Iraqi government has encouraged residents to stay put to avoid massive humanitarian displacement.
Fathiya Isamii said her family survived the intense clashes with IS when Iraqi forces retook the Intisar neighborhood only to have her son injured by a sniper round weeks after the area was declared liberated.
"He just took a few steps outside and was hit," she said, pointing to her home just a few blocks from a front line that hasn't moved for a month.
"We just want you to push them out," Isamii told an Iraqi army officer of the remaining IS fighters.
Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, is the last major IS urban bastion in the country. The battle for Mosul, started on Oct. 17, is proceeding slowly as the presence of civilians means Iraqi troops cannot rely on heavy airstrikes to clear terrain.
Iraqi army Sgt. Maj. Marwan Abbas said his unit has been unable to clear out the snipers because IS forces are constantly bringing in reinforcements. IS snipers are attacking from the roofs of homes in which civilians are still living and constantly changing their locations.
Iraqi forces are still working to fully surround Mosul and cut IS supply lines in and out of the city. In past operations against IS, long periods of isolation aimed at weakening the militant group preceded pushes inside urban centers.
U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have attempted to partially isolate the eastern half of Mosul by destroying four of the five main bridges spanning the Tigris River. But Iraqi commanders say the militants are still able to ferry supplies and fighters across the river in boats.
"Every day we kill some of them," Abbas said, flipping through pictures of mutilated corpses of suspected IS fighters on his mobile phone.
Using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, Abbas said, "But all the time Daesh is sending more."
George reported from Mosul, Iraq