As Iraqi Forces Push Into Mosul, Camps Brace For An Influx Of The Displaced : Parallels In Iraq, counter-terror forces are nudging their way into the ISIS-held city of Mosul. People are fleeing the fighting with only the clothes on their backs. Hundreds of thousands more could follow.

As Iraqi Forces Push Into Mosul, Camps Brace For An Influx Of The Displaced

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's go now to a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq. It's expecting a lot more residents any day now. Elite counter-terror forces are making their way into the Iraqi city of Mosul, now held by ISIS. And thousands are fleeing the fighting with just the clothes on their backs. Aid agencies say hundreds of thousands more could follow. Here's NPR's Alice Fordham.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: This camp about 15 miles east of Mosul is pristine, the gravel spotless, the rows of tents still white and mostly empty. But that's about to change. This family now washing their dusty clothes arrived last night. They fled a village on the very edge of the city as Iraqi forces were battling to take it from ISIS.

FAWZIA AKHLEF: (Speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: "We heard fighting, tanks, shelling," says Fawzia Akhlef as she wrings out her children's clothes.

AKHLEF: (Speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: "We were happy," she says. "We knew it was dangerous, but we just wanted to be under the control of the army." These people are poor farmers and said life under ISIS was bad not so much because the extremists enforced harsh rules but because it cut them off from government assistance and because food and fuel prices rose. They were hungry.

(CROSSTALK)

FORDHAM: Inside a tent, husband and wife Najm Abdullah and Hamda Mohammad tell me they fled the same village. They don't know a lot about what's been going on in Iraq. Under ISIS, mobile phones and TVs weren't allowed.

NAJM ABDULLAH: (Speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: But he says they secretly listened to a radio. They heard the army was telling people in ISIS areas to wave a white flag when the armed forces came.

ABDULLAH: (Speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: As the fighting escalated, they fled, driving through crossfire. And as they moved further from ISIS and closer to the soldiers, they waved their white flag, and the shooting stopped. Now they hope there will be a school in the camp for their kids who have for months been selling water to passing cars because the family got so poor.

When I speak to camp director Ruzgar Obeid, he says when people from ISIS areas arrive, you can tell they're traumatized.

RUZGAR OBEID: (Speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: "You can see in their faces they have psychological problems," he says. "They were in a dangerous situation. They come here, and they're safe." So far, only a trickle of people has fled the fighting. Here, to the east of Mosul, most of the battles so far have been in empty villages. But today, special forces began pushing deeper into the heavily populated city. Aid agencies say as many as a million people or even more still live in Mosul, and Obeid thinks his camp will fill up soon with people running away.

OBEID: (Speaking foreign language).

FORDHAM: "It's going to be very difficult," he says. He just got word that there are 2,000 people who have fled the fighting today. The army is bringing them to his camp, which isn't actually finished yet.

Aid agencies at the U.N. have been hustling to build enough camps for the hundreds of thousands of people who could flee the fighting once it reaches the center of Mosul. The operations to retake the city have been ongoing for two weeks now. Iraq's security forces have been fighting their way through rural areas. Now some of them are moving into the city itself. Commanders expect the fight to become even tougher. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Hassan Shami camp, northern Iraq.

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