After ISIS hell, displaced Iraqis face winter freeze

KHAZIR, Iraq – After enduring two years of tyranny under the Islamic State (ISIS) group and surviving the war that liberated them, displaced civilians in northern Iraq face a new enemy: the cold.

With the fighting raging inside Mosul where hundreds of thousands of civilians still live, an early winter and sub-zero temperatures have brought an added challenge.

"At night we have to keep our heads under the blanket and curl into a ball to stay warm," said Alya Zannun, a 56-year-old woman living in a tent in Khazir camp, southeast of Mosul.

"We are dying from the cold, our hands are getting dry and are covered in fungi," she said, washing a few dishes with ice-cold water.

Warda Maraebi, a 71-year-old woman helping her with the dishes, said: "We can't even stretch our fingers because of the cold, how are the children going to handle this?"

More than 70,000 people have been displaced in the Mosul area since Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to retake the ISIS bastion on October 17.

Despite the fact that larger numbers were initially expected, aid organizations have been racing against time to build enough camps and provide basic assistance.

Fatima Omar, 38, fled her home east of Mosul earlier this month with her 6 children.

"At night, the tent was shaking, it felt like the wind was going to blow it away," she said. "If the weather gets any worse, the tent will just collapse."

Some of the displaced now housed in the camps dotting the Mosul region were battling temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) just a few weeks ago.

Northern Iraq gets cold weather in the winter however and even snowfall in some areas, including regions of the Kurdish region housing many of the country's more than 3 million displaced.

Fatima was given a heater but the device was still in its box inside her tent because she had no kerosene to make it work.

"Yes they gave us a heater but it's never been used. No fuel, no electricity. What are we supposed to do with it?" she said.

She said her youngest child was suffering from diarrhea and also expressed concern about the health of her 71-year-old cousin Mariam Safar.

'I will die'

On the other side of the wire mesh ringing the sprawling camp, vendors selling food to the displaced people above the fence are now also offering clothes.

Bushra Talal, whose husband was killed by the jihadists in their Mosul neighborhood of Al-Samah two years ago, broke into tears when she spoke about the conditions in the camp.

She said her daughters, aged 13, 10, and 8 called at night complaining about the cold.

"We are suffering from the cold, my daughters are getting sick... The water is so cold I can't let them have a bath," said the woman, wearing a black abaya and yellow head scarf.

"I went to the person in charge of the camp and asked him to let us leave. I don't want my children to die of exposure," said the young woman.

The United Nations said it started delivering winter assistance to 4.6 million displaced Iraqis and Syrians but it said its plan was only partially funded.

The UN's refugee agency said it was specifically targeting 1.2 million displaced Iraqis, including many of those affected by the Mosul offensive.

UNHCR spokeswoman Caroline Gluck said a distribution took place last week in its Hasansham camp, which neighbors the government-built Khazir camp where Bushra Talal lives.

The organization handed out "warm blankets, heaters, insulating kits, including floor mats and an additional insulating layer for the tent, and plastic sheets to help get them through the harsh winter months," she said.

Different camps get different quality aid and, with winter barely started, many displaced families are suffering already.

"When the rain comes, I will die," said Mariam Safar. –