Sheltering amid destruction in Haji Ali

Since May 2016, more than 100,000 Iraqis have been displaced in the Mosul corridor as military operations continue to prepare for the liberation of Mosul. The United Nations estimates that up to 1.5 million people could be affected.

The recently displaced need life-saving emergency assistance, including fresh water, medicine, shelter and hygiene supplies.

Maulid Warfa, chief of UNICEF Iraq’s Erbil office, recently returned from a security assessment mission to a village in the vicinity of Mosul. He spoke with UNICEF Communications Consultant Chris Niles.

Haji Ali was eerily quiet driving in. The signs of battle were all around – military graffiti, bombed buildings and, overhead, the black smoke of oil fires, lit by retreating fighters to reduce visibility for aerial bombardments.

Haji Ali is like a ghost town. All you see is destruction and despair and dust, and more dust. Unexploded ordnance is lying around. There are streets and streets of destroyed houses.

Abandoned houses in dusty field with dark smoke from oil fires in the background
© UNICEF Iraq/2016/WarfaAbandoned houses in the village of Haji Ali. Residents have fled to safety, but nearly 1,000 people shelter in three schools in the town, displaced from villages closer to the conflict.

The town is not completely deserted, however. At the first school we visited, 450 women and children were sheltering in nine classrooms. Like others we met that day, they had come from villages a few kilometres away, on the other side of the Tigris River.

The desks had been put outside, and about 100 children sat at them, pretending to study while the older children told them stories. That broke my heart. Children just want to be children, no matter what they have suffered.

Next door to the school was a public health clinic, obviously abandoned in a hurry. There was a UNICEF fridge, at one time used to store cold chain supplies for essential childhood vaccinations, now filled with cotton gauze.

The second school we visited was sheltering 240 children and women who had come from Ijalla.

Their situation was dire. They had no clean water and were suffering from diarrhea and scabies. Those with more serious conditions rushed at us, thinking we were medical doctors. It was the worst crisis you can imagine. They had been there for days with nothing but dirty water. We met a young boy of about 11 who was paralyzed from the waist down and needed pills to enable him to urinate, and he didn’t have any.

There were nearly 200 men and boys living in six classrooms at the third shelter we visited. They were desperate for food and medicine.

Children's books on the floor
© UNICEF Iraq/2016/WarfaChildren’s books litter the floor of an abandoned school.

After that we went to several abandoned schools where you could see bullet holes and graffiti. Children’s books and other school supplies had been dumped on the floor. From the roof, fires from the conflict, about 10 kilometres away, were clearly visible.

We made our last stop at the military front line on the River Tigris. Heavy military equipment was lined up along the riverbank, and we could hear the sounds of fighting.

We weren’t able to cross the military bridge to the other side, but we know there are about 8,000 displaced people in three villages there, living in appalling conditions. We began negotiations to get supplies to them, and these were delivered two days later.

As we drove out of Haji Ali, the landscape was the same, but with one big difference – instead of the roads being completely empty, we passed trucks with UNICEF supplies of food, water and hygiene destined for the 950 people we had just met in the three schools in the village.


Maulid Warfa is Chief of the Erbil Office, UNICEF Iraq

Chris Niles is an Emergency Communication Specialist, UNICEF Iraq

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