"All of my friends have been killed," Abdullah* tells me. I'm in Khazer Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), 30 km east of Mosul in Iraq. Abdullah is very thin, looks very cold and is clearly traumatised. He is from Mosul city, which has been under ISIS control since June 2014.
Last Friday in Brussels, the EU and the UN hosted a donor conference on the humanitarian response to the Iraq crisis and priorities for stabilisation. Some welcome new funding was announced but rapid action is needed in a range of areas to make a difference to Abdullah, the 100,000 others who have fled ISIS-controlled Mosul, and the one million more who remain trapped in the city.
In the last two months Iraqi and Kurdish forces and militia, with support from a US-led international coalition, have been fighting to recapture Mosul from ISIS. The battle scars are all too clear: On the road to Khazer camp from Erbil, we drive through a Peshmerga (Kurdish army) checkpoint and past a field hospital. We pass what were Pershmerga trenches fortified by sandbags, and we take a detour because the bridge on the main road was destroyed in the fighting. This was the frontline of the war against ISIS just weeks ago. The fighting isn't likely to end until spring 2017.
The aid agency I work for, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), is today distributing hygiene kits, dignity kits and household kits to some of the 40,000 people in this camp. People who once had homes and livelihoods wait for hours in the cold and damp to receive basic goods like soap, washing powder, a bucket, a mop, sanitary towels and nappies for their babies. The blue plastic tents stretch as far as the eye can see in the freezing mud. There is a strong smell of kerosene in the air. Yesterday, there was a security alert in the camp when explosions were heard nearby. It turned out to be the Peshmerga doing controlled detonations of explosive devices left by ISIS.
Abdullah's story shocks even my IRC colleague Samir, who is overseeing our aid distribution today, and who comes from Mosul himself. His family are still there. He grips Abdullah's hand as he speaks.
Before ISIS took over, Abdullah worked as a police officer in the Iraqi Police. ISIS would kill him if they ever found out so, when they came, he started working as a taxi driver to keep bringing in money for his family. But he was stopped at ISIS checkpoints for background checks, and detained for a few days. The third time this happened, he was held for a month and did not know his fate. When he was released and made it home, he dared not leave his house for the next two years. It is the way he slept every night to try and avoid detection if ISIS should raid his home that is most disturbing, "We dug a shallow hole in the floor like a grave. Every night at bedtime, I would climb into it and lie there. My family pulled a cabinet across the top of the hole, so that I could not be seen. Then, I would try to sleep. In the morning, my family would let me out." This sounds like something from a distant, barbaric past. But for Abdullah, it was his daily reality just a few weeks ago.
When Abdullah, his neighbours and his family heard the fighting intensify as the Iraqi Army got closer, they decided to run for their lives across the frontline of the battle. Some were killed as they ran. Abdullah pushed a woman in a wheelchair through the fighting. Having made it across, they were taken to a security screening centre where, like all men, Abdullah was checked to make sure he was not ISIS. Finally they made it to the relative safety of Khazer camp. Once the military offensive is over, Abdullah hopes to return home to Mosul and get back his old job as a police officer.
Mahmud comes over to speak to us. He has been in the camp just under three weeks, and never wants to return to Mosul. "I can't go back - everything is destroyed. I used to have money before ISIS came but I used it all up in the last two years, and now I have nothing". Before 2014, Mahmud had two daughters at medical school, "They lost their future because of ISIS. We were told that if they wanted to continue their studies, they would have to go to Raqqa." Raqqa is an ISIS-held area of Syria. He tells me he saw people killed by ISIS and a woman stoned to death in the market and says, "ISIS are monsters. They are not human. ISIS are not Muslims - they say they are but nothing they do is Islamic."
Mahmud's family risked listening to the news often (ISIS bans all devices that allow communication or information from the outside world). They waited for the Iraqi Army to come close enough for them to escape to one of the IDP camps. From his roof, he watched for them, with his wife and children hiding under the stairs in case they were bombed. When the battle neared, they ran and hid in a ditch in the no-mans land between the two warring sides. There they lay for six hours, repeating the Death Duaas (prayers that some Muslims try to say just before they die), sure that they would not survive. Then, their house was blown up. Mahmud and his family fled to the camp.
Our conversation ends and Mahmud begins to walk away. He turns back to say thank you, "without your help, we will die." These are the words that should ring in the ears of donor governments and propel them to act.
The stories of Abdullah, Mahmud and their families highlight so many aspects of what the world must do to help people fleeing Mosul. First, every effort must be made to minimise civilian casualties and to try to ensure that civilians have safe routes out of Mosul. UNAMI must be given more resources to monitor human rights at screening centres. Second, additional funding is still badly needed - over US$1 billion of it, to provide adequate shelter in this bitter winter, and to meet the basic needs of displaced people. Most difficult of all, this includes trying to get aid to those still trapped inside Mosul. Third, a plan must be developed with the Iraqi Government to help people like Abdullah return home when the fighting ends. ISIS has booby-trapped homes with explosive devices, and considerable funding and a relaxation of local restrictions is needed for de-mining experts to do their jobs on anything like the scale that is required. This plan must include help for those like Mahmud and his family, who have nothing to return to, and deep fear at what going back could mean. They must be supported without being returned to Mosul against their will.
The EU, and ECHO in particular, deserves recognition for calling Friday's meeting and for its consistent work to mobilise the international community as part of the Mosul response. But now governments must deliver action and concrete long-term commitments that give the people of Iraq, who have endured so much already, some hope of a brighter 2017.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.