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Should Mosul Residents Flee The Fighting Or Hunker Down And Wait It Out?


The latest battlefield in Iraq is also a major city. Iraqi forces have finally begun their drive into Mosul. They want to retake that city from ISIS, which captured it back in 2014. This leaves civilians with a choice - whether to stay, whether to flee and, if they flee, where to go. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, is in northern Iraq and making preparations. He told us via Skype he's been visiting refugee camps outside Mosul.

How many beds do you have available, if that's the way to think about it for people coming out of the city.

FILIPPO GRANDI: No, it's more how much shelter we have available. You know, unfortunately, we're not talking about beds here. We're talking about tents and other shelter options. We estimate that, between everybody - the government, the relief organizations, the UN - you know, we can provide some form of rudimentary shelter to up to 400,000 people. The problem is sites have been identified, except that there are too few.

And we've insisted that they be placed in locations that are out of the way of the fighting. So far, so good. But, you know, many will stay with relatives, so maybe we'll have to give a little help to the families. Others will stay in ruined buildings. You need to give them emergency kits to fix places that are not suitable for living. So we will have to adapt accordingly. And I think that we will need all these options, not just one.

INSKEEP: Do you think it is safer for people in Mosul - civilians in Mosul to leave or to stay in their homes and get in the basement, if they can?

GRANDI: I really don't know, but I know one thing based on my long experience in this area - they know better. So what I told the government is that - let them decide. Then we need to help them, but let them decide. What I got back from the authorities was positive.

INSKEEP: What do you mean you heard something positive back? What did they say?

GRANDI: The government told us that they are fully aware that protection of civilians should be part of their strategy and is part of the strategy, which was not the case in previous offensives in this country, that there should be no space for retribution. We've seen this in previous offensives. This has made people to flee in greater numbers.

And it has discouraged them from coming back. My concern is make sure that this goes down to the ground level that will respect the people. You know, it's always difficult in a war, especially in fragile states, to go down the chain of command and have good decisions implemented in a good way.

INSKEEP: Granting that you can't predict the future, as you plan, do you assume that at the end of this campaign there will be an inhabitable city?

GRANDI: I don't know. We have little idea of the damage that has been inflicted on Mosul for the past couple of years. But one thing is sure - we know that there will have to be massive infrastructure interventions, private housing and public infrastructure. Education, health system, energy - all that will have to be restored and will require huge resources. And I think the most difficult part will be to restore the social fabric of the city. That's why the way the war will be conducted will determine the viability of this reconstruction of the social fabric. If it is conducted in a humane manner that does not include retribution, targeting of groups, the civilian population, then we have a chance to restore the very diverse city that Mosul was in the past. If not, I foresee a long period of instability in and around the city.

INSKEEP: Filippo Grandi of the United Nations, thanks very much.

GRANDI: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.