STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
More than two years after ISIS captured a major Iraqi city, Iraqi forces are preparing to take it back. The city is Mosul, in Iraq's north, and as many as a million of its original residents still live there. NPR's Alice Fordham is asking what happens to them as Iraqi forces mass outside of town.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What are Iraqi forces doing?
FORDHAM: Well, there's a whole constellation of different forces. There is the Iraqi army, there are special forces, there's Kurdish forces from the north. The U.S.-led coalition is assisting and there are various others as well. They are positioned on the roads south and east and west of Mosul. And their plan is to fight their way into the city, which could take a long time.
Once they get there, ISIS is dug in. They've been there, as you said, more than two years. It's a big urban area. This is going to be a difficult fight. And everyone here is afraid for the fate of the people inside, for the impacts of what could be a huge exodus.
INSKEEP: So where are the people expected to go?
FORDHAM: Well, that's what I wanted to find out. And so I went to a place, you know, the closest I could go, about an hour's drive from Mosul. There's a camp for people who have fled ISIS. It's a small camp by Iraq standards, about 26,000 people in a country where 3 million are displaced.
And I can play you some of the sounds of what it's like to be there. A little market has sprung up outside, where residents sell some of their rations like lentils and buy vegetables from the locals. I speak to one camp resident picking through a pile of green peppers. Her name is Nihaya Obeid.
NIHAYA OBEID: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: "A lot of people are arriving here," she says, hundreds every day. They're running away from ISIS areas, afraid of the battle that's coming.
FORDHAM: When I ask about the Mosul offensive, it's clear this is on everyone's minds. Everyone starts talking at once, the other customers and the local store owner, whose name is Jassim Mohammad.
JASSIM MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: "When the operations start, we're expecting a lot of people," he says. The situation will be harder. Many people will come and the aid organizations won't be able to cope with them all. Inside the camp, I watch hundreds of people lining up to be served rice and beans out of giant cauldrons - and meet the camp director, Ruzgar Obeid.
RUZGAR OBEID: (Foreign language spoken, laughter).
FORDHAM: He laughs ruefully as he tells me he's not sleeping while worrying about his camp, which is already full to bursting. Seven hundred people are arriving every day already.
R OBEID: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: "We're expecting in the first hours of the offensive more than 200,000 people will flee," he says. That's based on one scenario that aid agencies are working on, though no one really knows exactly what will happen. Those aid groups might be able to provide food and water for that many people, but not shelter.
Later, I meet with Karl Schembri. He's with the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the aid groups which is planning a response to this expected exodus. He too says it's possible 200,000 people could flee Mosul in the first hours of the assault, and many more subsequently.
KARL SCHEMBRI: The reality is that with the existing camps on sites that have been identified, there is capacity right now as we speak for some 50,000 people.
FORDHAM: So that means a lot of homeless people. Schembri says it's also possible there just won't be a safe route out for people, and they could end up stuck inside the fighting or die trying to escape. He also raises another issue, screening by Iraqi security forces.
SCHEMBRI: The way it happens is that the moment people leave from Mosul, they are screened, they are tested, checked - their names are checked on the lists. They are interrogated and questioned.
FORDHAM: This is to stop ISIS fleeing among civilians. It's only men who are screened. They're kept separately, often in cramped holding areas. It can take hours, days, sometimes weeks. The process is opaque, and some say unfair.
In the camp, one woman named Zina Ali from Mosul, tells me her son is 13 and was taken for screening and put in prison as an ISIS member.
ZINA ALI: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: She says she thinks he was taken because ISIS was teaching Islamic law in school. Someone put his name on a list of students and posted it on Facebook.
ALI: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: She wipes her eyes with the corner of her headscarf as she's talking to me and says it's been 40 days since she saw him. And she's got no idea what's going to happen now.
INSKEEP: Some of the sounds of the area outside Mosul, Iraq, from NPR's Alice Fordham. And, Alice, I was just taking notes here. You said that they've got capacity for 50,000 people to flee Mosul, but that they think 200,000 might flee right away and who knows how many after that. Why so little preparation?
FORDHAM: Humanitarian agencies say it's very difficult to plan in advance for such a big thing when the start date has been very unclear. They can't afford to build camps and leave them empty. Plus, they don't actually know where the people are going to go because we don't know where the assault is coming from. It's a huge possible area that we might see people fleeing into.
There was a big offensive earlier in the year, if you remember, on the much smaller city of Fallujah. And people running away were left stranded in the desert in the baking heat with nothing, like, no water, no toilets. You hear people say that they are learning lessons from that. But it's clear that avoiding massive suffering is going to be very difficult.
INSKEEP: It sounds like actually they're not saying when they're going to attack Mosul because it's a military operation. All that is known by aid agencies is that generally some offensive will come sometime?
FORDHAM: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there are a lot of loose-lipped people within this - Iraqi security forces and within the aid agencies, who are saying within hours and within days. But honestly, everyone is saying something different. So it could be today or it could be at some point in the near future. It could be - slip further than that. We don't really know.
INSKEEP: Alice, thanks very much.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Alice Fordham. She is in Erbil in northern Iraq, not too far from Mosul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.