Islamic State militants have been going door to door in villages south of Mosul, ordering people at gunpoint on a mileslong trek into the city and using them as human shields as the extremists prepare to defend it from Iraqi forces, according to residents swept up in the forced evacuations.
Witnesses described scenes of chaos over the past week as hundreds of people were ordered out of their homes without having time to pack and driven north across the Ninevah plains toward the heavily-fortified city, where IS has been preparing for a climactic showdown.
“IS took all of us from our homes at gunpoint and told us they were taking us with them to Mosul,” Ahmed Bilal Harish told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “They said if you don’t come with us you’re an unbeliever.”
He said he and his family were only able to escape when a volley of airstrikes caused the fighters to scatter during the 25-mile forced march from their home in the town of Shura to Mosul.
“We had two choices: We could be killed by Daesh or die along the way, so we ran,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. The family is now living in a camp for those displaced by the fighting in an area under government control.
Other Shura residents also described being forcibly relocated to Mosul over the weekend. The militants only gave people a few minutes to leave and said any stragglers risked being punished for hiding out and trying to join the Iraqi security forces.
One family was forced to leave their home in the middle of a meal, and another lost track of two relatives during the melee and have not seen them since. At least one villager died of a heart attack on the road, they said.
The displaced residents spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for their safety while living under IS rule in Mosul. Brig Gen Alaa Mehsin, of the Iraqi army’s 15th Division, said the IS militants were pulling back to bolster their defenses in Mosul ahead of the coming Iraqi offensive to retake the city. He said they were taking hundreds of civilians as human shields and had planted explosive booby-traps to slow the advancing troops.
“These small villages are secondary to them. Mosul is much more important,” Mehsin said as he strode between maps in an operations center in Qayara, one of the main staging bases for the offensive.
“They don’t want to waste their energy.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says IS fighters have been sweeping through the hardscrabble towns and villages to the south of Mosul over the past week, killing those they fear may rise up against them and forcibly relocating others.