A dusty police station in northern Iraq is a strange sort of paradise.
But that is what it is to the eight families crammed in here on the hard, tiled floor. Babies are crying and young children are sleeping where they collapsed from exhaustion.
They have walked 100 kilometres, and scaled a mountain last night, to escape territory held by the Islamic State group.
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.”
Shot at as they flee
These parents tell me that they are lucky. They show me graphic images of families who did not make it on their cell phones.
Pictures of children who dodged IS snipers and checkpoints, only to step on landmines sown into fields and mountain paths. Others collapsed and died on the journey after running out of water.
One woman says she paid thousands of dollars to smugglers — only to be pointed in the vague direction of freedom and then abandoned with her family to stumble down deadly routes in the dark.
I hear stories like these every day.
Families are growing increasingly desperate to flee with their children before the final assault. And they’re 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.”
An exodus of one million
We have already seen at least 150,000 people flee their homes in recent weeks, and more are on the move every day.
When the final push for Mosul comes the U.N., and aid agencies like us on the ground, are expecting an exodus of a million, maybe more.
What we’re witnessing 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 out 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.
600,000 trapped children
Every family I meet has their own harrowing tale.
As the offensive fast approaches, we’re gearing up our response plans to cope with the incredible level of need we expect will flood out from the city. 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 we aim to provide proper care for children travelling alone, reuniting them with their families where we can.
But across the board there is a shortage of funding. The UN has raised less than half of the money it needs for what is likely to be the biggest humanitarian crisis for many years. We need more help.
In the violence of this assault, children must be kept safe while they are fleeing — and protected if they make it out alive.
Mike McCusker is Save the Children’s Field Manager in Baghdad
Interested? Read more about Iraq:
- Mosul: The situation in Iraq’s second biggest city explained
- Football brings hope to children in Iraq
- Arsenal legends raise money for child refugees
Names changed to protect identities.