Al Houd, south of Mosul , was retaken by Iraqi security forces last week. Two days later, UNICEF sent a mission to deliver clean water and hygiene kits to the town’s 1,500 families. UNICEF Chief of Communication Sharon Behn Nogueira was there.
The sky was filled with ominous black clouds from oil fields that were set on fire by ISIL weeks earlier.
We drove into Al Houd from Al Qayyarah. It was an apocalyptic landscape, like something from a Mad Max movie. We drove through long stretches where there was absolutely nothing growing, not even a single tree.
It’s only about 11 kilometres between Al Houd and Al Qayyarah, but the journey took a long time — we had to drive off-road because the roads are mined. We stuck close to the railroad tracks, but were driving on desert land which kicked up blinding fine dust, blocking everything out, even the car in front of us.
The dust was so fine you could taste it, even through the sealed windows of our armoured vehicle .
We crossed the railroad tracks to enter Al Houd. It was eerily quiet; the silence was absolute. It was also completely deserted; not one child, not even a cat or a dog. The only signs of life were white flags hanging off balconies.
There was little damage to property and houses. It appeared the fighting had been different here, with little or no artillery. We saw one flattened building, and that was it.
The further we got into town, the more eerie it felt. We still hadn’t encountered a single person; it wasn’t clear if they were hiding or had run away. Perhaps both.
Eventually we got to the commercial section of town and started seeing people. There was one shop open that we saw, and girls and boys and older women walking around, but no young women. The children looked shell-shocked; some gave us the victory sign.
UNICEF and its local partner, the Women Empowerment Organization (WEO), were the only aid people there. When we got to the water delivery point, WEO told us that there had been no hygiene supplies delivered to the town in several weeks and that people were suffering from illnesses related to polluted water.
We unloaded 3,000 sets of drinking water, 1,500 hygiene kits and 1,500 buckets on the ground of a walled residence, and some residents started to gather outside the gate. We were told that the supplies would be taken to a secondary distribution point.
We drove back south through Al Qayyarah, a town which two months ago had looked a lot like Al Houd when it was retaken by Iraqi security forces.
From being a virtual ghost town, Al Qayyarah has sprung back to life; shops have opened, and families are receiving assistance.
I spoke to Zainab, a single mother who said she had walked to Al Qayyarah from Al Houd with her four young daughters. She said the Islamic State had seized her house, and she described the terror she had felt for her family over the last two years.
“We were scared, hungry and in need all the time,” she told me, then added. “I want to go home, to my family, put my children back in school.”
People are resilient; they don’t want to be displaced, they want to reclaim their homes and get on with their lives. But there’s still a lot of fear and uncertainty about the future. After visiting Al Houd, I got the feeling that things aren’t over yet.
Sharon Behn Nogueira is Chief of Communications with UNICEF Iraq.