For Fleeing Iraqis, Kurdish Areas Are The Safe Zone : Parallels An estimated 500,000 people have fled Mosul after the Islamist group ISIS took control of the city. Humanitarian workers say the displacement could eventually rival the Syrian crisis.

For Fleeing Iraqis, Kurdish Areas Are The Safe Zone

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. In Iraq, an estimated half a million people have fled the city of Mosul after ISIS - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - swept into the city. And the Iraqi army fled. As sectarian violence worsens, humanitarian workers warn this is only the beginning of a crisis that could rival what is going on next door in Syria. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from northern Iraq.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: At a checkpoint to enter the semiautonomous Kurdish north of Iraq, families wait for their cars to be searched and permission to enter. Inside this region, they will be safe. But these people who flee to Kurdish cities have the money to stay in hotels or rented apartments or have family to run to, the less fortunate stay behind in a small camp near the checkpoint. It is one of four being set up by the Kurdish Regional Government. In the camp, people register at a table shaded by a yellow tarp. It is a sea of sand and blue tents. Women hang up laundry on clotheslines and children rinse themselves under faucets connected to red tanks on the outskirts of the camp. There are about 170 families here. And every day a few more arrive. Some come on foot, others by car. And they come with little to nothing but the clothes they're wearing and the few things they could grab from their homes. A family waves us into their tent where at least 30 people are sleeping on the floor. They've been here three days.

BADR AWANA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Badr Awana, a parking attendant in Mosul, says I left because I heard the Army was going to conduct airstrikes so I was scared for my children. Awana's baby daughter cries nearby. They say she's sick from the over 100 degree heat. He brought his family here in a taxi. He sold a tank of gasoline so he could afford the fare and he has nothing left. We visit another family - a mother and father, their seven adult children and their grandchildren - who all fled in the midst of gunfire last week.

FAEL ISMAIL: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Faes Ismail, one of the family members, says his father is sick and they worried he wouldn't survive if they stayed in Mosul. So they grabbed his medicine, their IDs and fled. They saw dead soldiers in the streets and the police tower near their home was on fire. Ismail's mother says it's not a great situation in the camp, but at least it's safe. Humanitarian workers say the mass displacement from Mosul and other parts of Iraq is a crisis. The International Rescue Community says displaced Iraqis who can't make it to the Kurdish north are sleeping in cars on the side of the road, many of the displaced walk for days to get to safety.

MARZIO BABILLE: UNICEF is, as I said, assessing very carefully what is unfolding.

FADEL: That's Marzio Babille, the UNICEF representative in Iraq.

BABILLE: And what is unfolding is a series of overlaid crisis - one up to the other.

FADEL: He says the priority now is to keep humanitarian corridors open to the cities of Tikrit, Baaqouba, Talafar, Mosul and other dangerous areas. UNICEF is also pushing out vaccines for measles and polio because the displaced are living in close quarters and the diseases will spread quickly. Babille says polio is resurging in Iraq after 14 years of eradication. People use the word fluid a lot when describing Iraq right now. One day an area is safe, the next day it's not. ISIS, with the help of other Sunni groups marginalized by the mostly Shiite Iraqi government, has taken swathes of territory from northern Iraq to western Iraq near the Syrian border. Intense battles are breaking out between ISIS and government forces, as well as Shiite militias. Babille says this means it's a layered crisis of one mass displacement after another. Already, there are reports of people fleeing parts of eastern Iraq because of the fighting between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Sunni militants.

BABILLE: We must preserve supply lines to reach children. At the moment, this is increasingly difficult in some of these areas.

FADEL: And with the government in Baghdad unable to fend off Sunni militants, it also can't protect its displaced citizens.

HUDA MUSA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Huda Musa (ph) says she fled to the checkpoint because she was worried about the rumors of rape. She and her children slept in the street for two days before this camp was built. And as ISIS continues its battle for territory in Iraq and signs of all-out sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs grow, the population of the displaced will also grow. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Erbil.

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