December 8, 2016 / 6:39 PM / a year ago

Chaos, desperation at first U.N. aid distribution inside Mosul

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi police fired shots in the air and threatened to whip crowds with a hose as residents tried to overrun the first distribution of aid by UN agencies inside Mosul on Thursday, a scene of the desperation in areas retaken from Islamic State.

The distribution aimed to reach 45,000 people in total at several locations but showed the challenges for humanitarian organisations seeking to alleviate acute shortages of water, food and fuel.

As word of the aid spread, residents of the Zuhour neighbourhood flocked to a boys’ primary school chosen as a distribution point -- men queuing to one side of the main entrance and women on the other.

Fifty-six year old Saad Salih came in an electric wheelchair but the battery was flat and there is no power in Mosul to re-charge it, so a neighbour pushed him along. “We need everything,” Salih said. “The disabled should have priority. It’s hard for us.”

The men queued in relative order, but the women crushed against the door and tempers flared.

“We can’t push them back because they are women,” said one of the policemen controlling the crowd. Another brandished a section of hose, threatening to hit anyone who tried to push through.

Eventually, the organizers began to let people in small groups, but could not control the flow as hundreds surged forward against just a handful of men pushing to close the gate.

They burst through, and began climbing over the walls and pushing in through the exit until the police, firing shots in the air and wielding long sticks, managed to regain control.

Outside, young boys hawked carts and donkeys to transport people’s boxes of aid home, at a price.

Aid agencies have struggled to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Mosul, where residents have largely remained in their homes despite the fighting.

The sound of small arms fire was audible from several kilometres away, where Iraqi forces are fighting to dislodge the militants from the eastern side of the Tigris River that bisects Mosul. Even in areas recaptured by government forces, mortars fired by insurgents still kill and maim residents.

WINTER SETTING IN

Iraqis wait outside a distribution point run by United Nations agencies at Zahra district, east of Mosul, Iraq. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Inside the school, three trucks full of aid were unloaded with the help of volunteers, who stacked boxes in neat rows containing food, hygiene kits and water purification taps.

“We are going to cover the whole population in this area,” said Hayder Ithawi, a program officer for the U.N.’s World Food Program who is in charge of its rapid response operations.

With winter setting in, fuel is increasingly important, along with water and healthcare, Ithawi said.

Queuing outside, people were anxious for their share and complained that prior distributions of aid by smaller charitable groups and individuals had been unfair.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“Some people got five bags of flour and others got none,” said 46-year old carpenter Ihsan Abdullah.

Most people clutched government ration cards, but Samira Mohammed brought a slip bearing the official stamp of Islamic State’s vice squad, known as the Hisba.

It proved that the militants had confiscated the family ration card when her son was detained for raising birds, which was forbidden under their rule.

Due to the “critical situation”, WFP’s Ithawi said any document that reliably identified a household and its head would be accepted, including those issued by Islamic State.

Although the militants are no longer around to enforce their strict dress code, most of the women were still shrouded in black, with only their eyes showing.

A man with a thick moustache, who identified himself as a policeman, said three Islamic State members had been found queuing for aid and were taken away.

Seventy-seven-year old Idrees Saeed Ilyas blamed the government for reducing Iraqis to waiting on handouts.

“If the head of a fish is rotten, the rest will go bad,” said Ilyas, who was the first man in the queue. “This is Iraq.”

editing by Peter Graff

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