Holding white flags and travelling in convoys of dump trucks, army buses and family sedans, thousands of residents poured out of eastern neighbourhoods of Mosul yesterday, the first significant wave of people to escape the city held by Isis (Islamic State).

More than 1.2 million people are believed to be still trapped in the northern city, which Iraqi security forces are just beginning to penetrate after launching an offensive to retake it two weeks ago. Newly constructed camps in the area have capacity for just 60,000 people.

The stream of humanity, which included shepherds pushing herds of sheep out of the warzone, crawled along in heavy traffic leaving Mosul and headed toward a swelling camp for displaced persons erected on the banks of the Khazir River, which has space for 1000 families but was rapidly filling up.

Even as they fled, some were almost giddy with relief. Drivers in the convoys blasted their horns and waved V for victory as Iraqi and Kurdish troops passed by on their way to the front lines.


Girls and young women who were forced to wear black veils over their faces in Mosul took them off and let the wind blow though their hair.

For nearly two and a half years, they have lived under Isis' brutal rule, in the group's defacto capital in Iraq. It was in the city's central mosque that the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate two years ago, calling on the world's Muslims to follow him.

Now Iraqi commanders say it's just a matter of time before the city is recaptured, though no one is sure of the cost civilians trapped inside may pay.

As government troops closed in, Baghdadi rallied his followers on Thursday, releasing an audio recording that called on them to remain steadfast and fight and obey their commanders.

"Oh you who seek martyrdom! Start your actions!" Baghdadi said in a translation provided by the Site intelligence group. "Totally decimate their territories, and make their blood flow like rivers."

People displaced by fighting from Mosul's eastern edges arrive to the village of Bazwaya, some 8 kilometers from the center of Mosul. Photo / AP
People displaced by fighting from Mosul's eastern edges arrive to the village of Bazwaya, some 8 kilometers from the center of Mosul. Photo / AP

Analysts said it was the first time that the Isis leader, whose whereabouts are unknown, had personally called on his fighters to maintain discipline on the battlefield, suggesting he may be concerned about defections.

Some Iraqi commanders have said that Isis fighters and their families have moved from the eastern side of Mosul to the west and even to Syria, although such reports are difficult to verify.

The number of civilians fleeing increased "significantly" yesterday as fighting crossed from villages to more densely populated neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city, said Alvhild Stromme from the Norwegian Refugee Council. She said at least 1000 families had fled, but new arrivals were still being counted.

Sabah Noori, a spokesman for Iraq's special forces, said around 5000 people had fled the eastern neighbourhood of Gogjali, which his forces entered on Wednesday, and a similar number had stayed behind. The Iraqi army also said it had stormed the Mosul neighbourhood of Intisar yesterday, pressing farther into the city.

"We were dead to the world, but God did not want us yet," said Saad Fahad, 46, who fled from Gogjali.

Children play next to a burning oil field in Qayara, south of Mosul, Iraq. Photo / AP
Children play next to a burning oil field in Qayara, south of Mosul, Iraq. Photo / AP

Asked what the last few days were like, Fahad said: "It was a horror, to be honest."

They hid under the stairwell and in the bathroom.

Fahad came out with 40 members of his extended family in four vehicles, their rooftops piled with chairs, bicycles and mattresses and their pickup truck beds loaded with children. They were down to bread and tea before they ran.

Shops in the neighbourhood ran out of food two or three days ago and then shuttered during the fighting.

One of his cousins was freshly shaved and said it was a relief to be free of the long beard that Isis demanded of men.

But Fahad said: "It wasn't the beards or the forbidden mobile phones or cigarettes that was the worst. It was the psychological pressure. You refuse anything? They called you an infidel and could take you away."

Ahmed Mohammad, 33, a labourer travelling with 23 family members, said that after the first Iraqi troops entered his neighbourhood on Wednesday, "I ran out of the house and kissed his boots".

Ahmed, who asked that his last name not be used because he still had relatives in Mosul, said that the eastern edge of the city was first shelled by Iraqi forces and later by Isis.

"Many civilians are dying," he said. "If you have a car you will leave, if you don't you will try to walk," Ahmed said, predicting that Mosul would empty itself out, at least in districts with heavy fighting. "Only the shepherds will stay to protect their animals."

Iraq's armed forces are trying as much as possible to keep families in their homes as they advance, hoping to divert a humanitarian crisis that the country is woefully equipped to deal with. Some 3.4 million people have already been displaced during Iraq's war against Isis.