(Beirut) – Islamic State (ISIS) forces are endangering civilians by attacking from populated areas, mining territory, and otherwise preventing civilians from fleeing Hawija and the outskirts of Mosul. Forces attacking ISIS should take all necessary measures to minimize harm to civilians, particularly those that ISIS forces may have deliberately placed at risk.
“Thousands of civilians are at risk because of military operations in Mosul and Hawija and all sides are obliged to let families reach safety,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director. “ISIS needs to let people leave and anti-ISIS forces should take into account the many civilians trapped in areas under attack.”
On October 17, 2016, Iraqi central government and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities, with the support of an international coalition, announced the start of military operations to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which ISIS captured in June 2014. Anti-ISIS forces have also encircled the city of Hawija, 120 kilometers southeast of Mosul, which ISIS also captured in June 2014, and begun operations to retake the city. There were an estimated 1.2 million civilians in Mosul and an estimated 115,000 in Hawija at the start of operations. The fighting has so far led to at least 5,640 people fleeing into northern Syria and Iraq, including the Kurdistan region.
Human Rights Watch interviewed four civilians who had recently fled from ISIS-held territory, and are now residents of Debaga camp, 40 kilometers south of Erbil. They described ISIS carrying out attacks from occupied homes and landmine explosions in ISIS-controlled territory. Since 2014, Human Rights Watch has interviewed a demining expert and dozens of individuals who described how ISIS encircles villages and towns with landmines to protect areas from attack and to prevent civilians from fleeing.
One displaced villager, Ali Ahmed, on October 20 told Human Rights Watch that he and his wife and five children had been living in the village of al-Adla, about 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul. He said that when fighting broke out between ISIS and Iraqi military forces on October 17, ISIS used his home to attack Iraqi forces without providing for their safety, endangering him and his family. He said:
As the army got closer, three ISIS fighters entered my house. I couldn’t tell them to leave my house because they could have killed me and hurt my family. They said, “We need to use your roof.” They were up there for 15 minutes. Some houses were targeted by tanks because ISIS fighters used them. Thank God my house was not targeted. Once ISIS fighters retreated from the village toward Mosul, we raised a white flag so the army doesn’t target our house.
20 residents from villages under ISIS control in Makhmur district, 100 kilometers southeast of Mosul, told Human Rights Watch that fighters had put them at grave risk of attack by firing artillery next to their homes without moving civilians away, subjecting them to return fire. Villagers also said that ISIS deployed weapons and fighters in or near schools that were still operating, leading in one instance to an airstrike that damaged the building.
During fighting in a nearby village on October 17, Iraqi military forces called on residents to place white flags on their roofs before allowing them to flee, according to aid workers. Since the beginning of operations to retake Mosul, Iraqi authorities have been calling on residents in and around Mosul to stay home throughout the fighting and signal their civilian status by placing white flags atop their homes. The absence of a white flag on a house does not eliminate the legal requirement of attacking forces to distinguish between civilians and combatants, Human Rights Watch said.
The laws of war require all parties to the conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under their control from the effects of attacks, and to avoid placing military forces in densely populated areas. Parties must take all feasible steps to evacuate civilians from areas where they are deployed and not block or impede the evacuation of those wishing to leave. Deliberately using the presence of civilians to protect military forces from attack is the war crime of “human shielding.”
Anti-ISIS forces are obligated under the laws of war to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. Attacks that are indiscriminate because they fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians are prohibited, as are attacks that are disproportionate because the anticipated civilian harm is excessive compared to the expected military gain.
An aid worker who interviewed civilians who fled Hawjia said that at least five families told him that, in violation of the laws of war, ISIS fighters were not allowing men to flee and only allowing women and children to leave if they paid US$400 per person.
“Ammar,” a resident of al-Kubeyba, a village 35 kilometers southeast of Mosul that has been under ISIS control for two years, told Human Rights Watch that when his family and neighbors fled, several were injured by explosive devices.
Ammar said that as Iraqi military forces approached the area and ISIS retreated, his relatives drove with two other vehicles to the closest checkpoint run by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Both the other cars hit landmines along the road. The passengers in one car were unharmed; the driver in the second car was bleeding from his head and broke his arm. After the blasts, they left their vehicles and walked the last kilometer to the checkpoint, Ammar said.
“Mohammed” told Human Rights Watch that to leave Hawija, his family paid smugglers US$500 to avoid the explosive devices that ISIS had planted surrounding the city. The smugglers charged $250 each for him and his wife, and nothing for their two children. He said that as they walked through the mine-infested area, “we saw at least three bodies on the ground, killed by mines.” Brahan Hussein, who was part of the same group and had paid the same price to smugglers, said that he saw at least two dead children and a woman on the ground and presumed they had been killed by mines.
Improvised mines planted by ISIS have posed a significant threat to civilians in other places that were under ISIS control, including Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, and Kobane in Syria. On October 26, Human Rights Watch will release new research about the significant threat ISIS-planted improvised explosive devices have posed to civilians in Manbij, Syria, both during and after military operations to retake the city.
Two of the incidents Human Rights Watch documented appear to have been caused by victim-activated improvised explosive devices, which explode due to the presence, proximity, or contact of a person. These antipersonnel mines, which are sometimes referred to as improvised explosive devices or booby traps, are prohibited by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits any use of antipersonnel landmines under any circumstances.
All parties to the conflict in Iraq should respect the ban on antipersonnel landmines, Human Rights Watch said.
Military and civilian authorities and international organizations should educate civilians on the dangers of improvised mines and explosive remnants of war in territory held or lost by ISIS, and clear mines and remnants of war to help civilians return once fighting is over.
“Even if ISIS keeps its unlawful grip on civilians trying to flee the fighting, other military forces should fulfill their obligations to civilians under the laws of war,” Fakih said. “This includes educating and protecting people from the deadly effects of improvised mines.”