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Potatoes And Onions:
In West Mosul, Locals Fight For Food And Fuel, Before The Real Battle Begins

Special Correspondent
People living on the western side of Mosul are still far from gun fire. But they are under siege: Food and fuel that was once brought by road from Syria is no longer available.
29.12.2016  |  Baghdad
Streets of Mosul in the past, when the market shelves were fully stocked.
Streets of Mosul in the past, when the market shelves were fully stocked.

In the house of Mosul woman, Fatima*, there is a small dark room that nobody ever wanted to spend much time in before. Mice and insects tended to be the only inhabitants. But now this room has become popular: It is filled with supplies that Fatima, a woman in her 60s, bought at the markets over the past few months using all of her savings.

“When I bought all these supplies a few months ago, my children didn’t understand what I was doing,” says Fatima, who shares her house on Mosul’s western side, with 16 other members of her family. “But now they understand. I made the right decision because all of the prices in the market have increased greatly, during the first week of this siege.”  

Fatima tells NIQASH that she keeps the door to the room closed at all times because she doesn’t want her children or grandchildren getting into the room and helping themselves.

What we feared is happening.The siege is starting for real. From now on, every seed and every drop of fuel counts because only God knows when this will end.

There are hardly any private homes in Mosul that don’t have a room like this. In the local dialect locals call it the Bait al-Muneh, or in English, the storage room. Many families have been preparing for the fighting, and potential siege conditions, that they knew would eventually come.

In mid-October the Iraqi military began an assault on the city in an attempt to try and push the extremist Islamic State group, which has controlled the city since June 2014, out. The pro-Iraqi forces have had some success on the eastern side of the city, and they now hold several suburbs there. But their progress has been slow due to the number of civilians who have decided to stay in their homes rather than flee the city. The troops have yet to reach the western side of the city where Fatima and her family live.

After the Islamic State, or IS, group took control of the city almost all the roads out of the metropolis, that once was home to around 2 million Iraqis, were blocked. The only road that stayed open was the one leading through the western desert over the border into Syria, and on to the city of Raqqa, the IS group’s stronghold in Syria.

For the past two and a half years this road was a major artery, through which food, medicine, oil, gas and other supplies travelled into Mosul. At one stage the pro-government forces fighting the IS group were planning to leave this western corridor open so that the IS fighters could leave the city, as many hoped they would. But in late November the road to Syria was blocked off by Iraq’s Shiite Muslim volunteer militias who are not currently playing a part in the fighting inside the mainly Sunni Muslim city, but who have reached the outskirts of nearby Tal Afar, the IS group’s second most important base in Iraq. 

“The last convoy of trucks and cars entered Mosul at the end of November,” Abu Ali*, a Mosul businessman, told NIQASH in a phone interview. “At the same time, there was fighting between the Shiite militias and the IS group in the Adayah area [around 50 kilometres west of Mosul] and a whole convoy of trucks carrying fuel were burned. After that, nobody wanted to cross that road because the whole area has become a war zone.”

The weather has also made the problem of supplying the civilians in the west side of the city worse. “There is a road that runs parallel to the main road but it is always closed early in the rainy season,” Abu Ali explained. “That’s why the prices in the market for anything that comes from Syria have risen so much – that includes food and fuel for heating as well as medicines.”

Fatima says that, at first, she didn’t notice the small changes in the city’s biggest market on the western side, the Bursa market. Gradually she realised that shelves were emptying and not being re-filled again. And now smaller stores have started to close their doors.

“What we feared is happening,” Fatima says. “The siege is starting for real. From now on, every seed and every drop of fuel counts because only God knows when this will end.”

For most locals the most important issue is price: These have risen exponentially since October. Flour and vegetables are very expensive now and black-market cigarettes that used to go for US$2 a pack now cost US$7. The price of fuel has also increased massively and that is only when you can get it.

As is its wont, the IS group is trying to control the parts of the city it still runs. According to a promotional video, released Dec. 4, the group’s morality police, also known as the Hisbah, have arrested around 20 businesspeople in the Bursa market because they were trying to raise prices too high.

“The merchants had a monopoly and they wanted to sell their stocks at high prices,” the young man, who features in the video clip, says. “The Hisbah did the right thing in punishing them.”

But even after these filmed threats, prices have continued to increase. One single egg, that used to sell for IQD200 (around US$0.16) now costs IQD1,000 (US$0.82).

The lack of fuel is another dimension of the siege. Fatima says that she’s just about finished her last cylinder of gas and will now switch to cooking over an open fire.

Crudely refined oil and oil derivatives were coming from Raqqa and from Iraq’s Qayyarah oil field that the IS group used to control. But the blocked routes and the loss of Qayyarah has left Mosul locals desperately searching for alternatives. The IS group has started selling off materials that it had planned to use for municipal projects to locals to use as fuel.

One Mosul man, Ahmed Khader*, says he bought 250 kilograms of wood from a playground project planned in the west of Mosul; the provincial government had started the project before the IS group took over.

“People there were pushing to buy the wooden beams,” Khader told NIQASH. “All of the available wood was sold in one week.”

Mosul’s Maash market on the west side was a popular place to buy vegetables and fruits right throughout the year. But now, locals say, there are only potatoes and onions for sale.

“It is sad that even this market, that used to feed all of Mosul, is closed,” Abu Ali remarks.

But then he starts laughing, after being asked about the time it takes for fruit to get into Mosul.

“That question reminds of something someone once asked Marie Antoinette,” Abu Ali says. “When she heard that the ordinary people couldn’t afford to buy bread, she said they should eat cake. People here can’t afford to buy bread, let alone fruit. Fruit is the last thing they’re thinking about. They can’t even afford to think about fruit, let alone buy it.”

*Names of individuals in Mosul have been changed for security reasons. 

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