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Trapped in a lawless war zone

18 January 2018, Emergencies

It is a strange sort of paradise, a dusty police station in northern Iraq. But that is what it is to these eight families, crammed in here on the tiled floor.

Babies are crying and young children are sleeping where they collapsed from exhaustion. They walked 100km and scaled a mountain to escape Islamic State. Many did it barefoot, including a five-year-old. But they survived.

“I have come from jail to paradise,” one mother says to me, surrounded by her five children. “I am finally home.” They are, the parents tell me, lucky.

They show me graphic images of families who did not make it. Pictures of children who dodged IS snipers and checkpoints only to step on landmines sown in the fields and mountain paths. Others collapsed and died on the journey after running out of water. One woman paid thousands of dollars to smugglers only to be pointed in the vague direction of freedom and abandoned with her family to stumble down deadly routes in the dark.

As the Iraqi army carved out a path to Mosul, I heard stories like these every day. Families are growing increasingly desperate to flee with their children before the final assault, even ready to risk capture and execution by IS fighters. “I tried escaping on four separate occasions,” one woman says. “But each time I was caught and sent back, and my husband was brutally beaten.”

We have seen at least 150,000 people flee their homes in recent weeks, and more are on the move. As the final push for Mosul comes, the UN and aid agencies like us on the ground are expecting an exodus of a million, maybe more.

What Save the Children is seeing now in areas recently captured from IS by the Iraqi army suggests they will need everything — water, food, shelter and psychological first aid. “We have nothing but our clothes!” one man shouted to us when we arrived with help.

The only memories some young children have is of a long and brutal two years of IS rule. Families told us they had resorted to desperate tactics to feed themselves under IS rule, some even cooking grass to eat. Every family I meet has its own harrowing tale.

By our estimates there are 600,000 children trapped inside right now. Within 12-72 hours from the call to deploy we aim to get emergency supplies to those that need them, and to provide proper care for vulnerable children travelling alone, reuniting them with their families where we can.

Across the board there is a shortage of funding. The UN has raised just half the money it needs for what is likely to be the biggest humanitarian crisis for years. We need more help, especially to save the children.