Mosul Old City residents spend hungry and fearful Ramadan under IS rule

Displaced Iraqi family from Mosul eat a simple meal for their Iftar, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at a refugee camp al-Khazir in the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq June 10, 2017. Picture taken June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – For Salam, a resident in the Islamic State-held Old City of Mosul, the holy fasting month of Ramadan this year is the worst he’s seen in a lifetime marked by wars and deprivations.

“We are slowly dying from hunger, boiling mouldy wheat as soup” to break the fast at sunset, the 47 year-old father of three said by phone from the district besieged by Iraqi forces, asking to withhold his name fearing the militants’ retribution.

The only wish he makes in his prayers is for his family to survive the final days of the self-proclaimed caliphate declared three years ago by IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a nearby mosque.

The eight-month old U.S.-backed campaign to capture Mosul, IS’s de-facto capital in Iraq, reached its deadliest phase just as the holy Muslim month started at the end of May, when militants became squeezed in and around the densely populated Old City.

Up to 200,000 people are trapped behind their lines, half of them children, according to the United Nations.

Hundreds have been killed while trying to escape to government-held lines, caught in the cross-fire or gunned down by Islamic State snipers. The militants want civilians to remain in areas under their control to use them as human shields.

Many bodies of the dead remain in the street near the frontlines. Four of them are relatives of Khalil, a former civil servant who quit his job after IS took over Mosul.

“Daesh warned us not to bury them to make them an example for others who try to flee,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Those who decide not to run the risk of fleeing are living in fear of getting killed or wounded in their homes, with little food and water and limited access to healthcare.

“Seeing my kids hungry is real torture,” said Salam, who closed his home appliances shop shortly after the start of the offensive as sales came to a complete stop.”I wish the security forces would eliminate all Daesh fighters in a flash; I want my family to have normal life again.”

Where food can be found, the price has risen more than 20-fold. A kilo of rice is selling for more than $40. A kilo of flour or lentils is $20 or more.

The sellers are mainly households who stockpiled enough food and medicine to dare sell some, but only to trusted neighbors or relatives, or in return for items they need. If militants find food they take it.

Residents fill water from a few wells dug in the soil. The wait is long and dangerous as shelling is frequent.

“The well-water has a bitter taste and we can smell sewage sometimes, but we have to drink to stay alive,” said Umm Saad, a widow and mother of four, complaining that the militants are often seen with bottled water and canned food.

“We have been under compulsory fasting even before the start of Ramadan,” she said. “No real food to eat, just hardened old bread and mouldy grains.”

About 800,000 people, more than a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps. But in areas still held by the militants escape has become harder than ever.

“Fleeing is like committing suicide,” said Khalil, the ex-civil servant, who lives near the medieval Grand al-Nuri Mosque, the offensive’s symbolic focus, where Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph.

IS’s black flag has been flying over its landmark leaning minaret since June 2014, when the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants, giving them their biggest prize, a city at least four times bigger than any other they came to control in both Iraq and neighboring Syria.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; editing by Peter Graff)

U.N. warns of increasing civilian deaths in battle for Iraqi city of Mosul

Residents who fled their homes due to fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants return to their village cleared by the Iraqi forces in western Mosul in Iraq June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Children trying to flee western Mosul have been shot dead by Islamic State militants, the U.N. human rights office said on Thursday, saying it had reports of a “significant escalation” in civilians deaths in the battle for the Iraqi city.

It also said it was investigating reports that 50-80 people had died in an air strike on the Zanjili district of Mosul on May 31. It did not say who carried out the strike.

The killing of fleeing civilians by Islamic State militants occurred in the al-Shifa neighborhood on May 26, June 1 and June 3, it said.

“Credible reports indicate that more than 231 civilians attempting to flee western Mosul have been killed since 26 May, including at least 204 over three days last week alone,” the U.N. human rights office said in a statement.

“Shooting children as they try to run to safety with their families – there are no words of condemnation strong enough for such despicable acts,” the statement quoted U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as saying.

Iraqi government forces retook eastern Mosul in January and began a push on May 27 to capture the remaining Islamic State-held enclave in the western side of the city, where about 200,000 people are trapped in harrowing conditions.

Last week Iraqi police said at least seven civilians had been killed by Islamic State mortar shells in the Zanjili area of western Mosul.

But a young man told Reuters he had been wounded when an air strike hit a group of 200-250 civilians collecting water because an Islamic State fighter was hiding among them.

The U.N. statement said the deaths in Zanjili were reportedly caused by one of several recent air strikes that had inflicted civilian casualties and it was seeking further information about those attacks, without elaborating.

“The murder of civilians, as well as the intentional directing of an attack against civilians who are not directly taking part in hostilities, are war crimes,” it said.

Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” is in retreat across Iraq and Syria. U.S.-backed Syrian forces this week launched an operation to capture Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Afghan families search morgues, hospitals after devastating truck bomb

Relatives of victims listen to hospital officials after a blast in Kabul.

By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) – It took nearly 24 hours for his Afghan family to discover Hamidullah’s broken body on the bottom shelf of a morgue at Kabul’s Wazir Akhbar Khan hospital.

Around him were placed the few personal belongings he had with him when he died.

“He was engaged and was about to get married,” his cousin Abdullah told Reuters, grief clouding his eyes as he stood in the barren morgue. “All of his and his family’s dreams remained unfinished.”

Twenty-year-old Hamidullah was on his way to his print shop in Afghanistan’s capital city early on Wednesday morning when he was killed by a massive truck bomb that exploded in the middle of a busy street, killing at least 80 people and wounding more than 450.

While the intended target of the bomb remains unknown, the explosion occurred near the gates of a heavily fortified area of the city that holds many foreign embassies and government ministries.

Many of the victims, however, were working class Afghans, people who had managed to eke out livelihoods during years of violence and economic malaise.

For Hamidullah’s family, the first indication something was be wrong was the sound of a powerful explosion, followed by an expanding cloud of smoke rising over the city.

Calls to his cellphone went unanswered, and a growing number of extended family members joined huge crowds at hospitals around the city, all seeking news of friends and family caught in the attack.

“We went to several hospitals to find him,” said Abdullah.

The hospital in Wazir Akhbar Khan was one of several inundated with the wounded, and later, the bodies.

“I have never experienced such a day in all my life,” said one morgue attendant who asked for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly. “All the freezers were full, and the dead bodies lined the road to the morgue as well.”

As of Thursday morning, as Hamidullah’s family gathered in small groups under the trees outside the morgue to wait for his father’s arrival, there were still a dozen unidentified bodies at the hospital, officials said.

Among those, around half are unrecognizable, the attendant added. Due to a lack of space, bodies had to be laid out on the ground and 20 were sent to a nearby military hospital.


Among the victims were employees of Afghan and international media, a major telecommunications company and a bank as well as police officers and security guards.

Kabul’s Emergency Hospital received at least 108 victims of Wednesday’s attack, said Sakhi Shafiq, a team leader there.

From their hospital beds, survivors described the scenes of horror they had lived through.

“I felt my face and body burning and I felt blood coming out of my face,” said Karim Jan, speaking with difficulty.

With chaos all around, he staggered several blocks to Emergency Hospital where he remains, heavily bandaged, with shrapnel scars dotting his face and limbs.

Baqer Zmarai was walking to his job at the state television station and had just passed the German Embassy, which was heavily damaged in the blast, when the bomb went off.

“I fell on the ground,” he said from his bed at Wazir Akhbar Khan hospital. “It was hard to see my surroundings. I could hear people yelling for help.”

Surrounded by dirt, smoke, mangled cars and shattered buildings, Zmarai struggled to stand on injured legs.

“I tried to escape but I could not walk.”

While some of the wounded were able to go home, many remain in hospitals and the search for lost loved ones continues.

“I do not know if my son is dead or alive. I have to see and find him,” said Besmillah, who stood outside the locked gates of Emergency Hospital on Thursday, pleading with the staff to let him enter.

“I went to every single hospital but could not find my son.”

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Americans without college degree report worsening finances: Fed survey

Applicants fill out forms during a job fair in Los Angeles November 20, 2009.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The overall financial situation of U.S. households continues to improve but Americans without a college degree feel they are struggling more compared to a year previously, according to a Federal Reserve survey released on Friday.

The annual survey, which was conducted in October 2016, is now in its fourth year and acts as a temperature check on the financial wellbeing of U.S. families.

Seventy percent of those surveyed said that they were either “living comfortably” or “doing okay,” an improvement from 69 percent the prior year and 62 percent in 2013.

The improving statistics in part reflect a buoyant jobs market. Since the last survey the unemployment rate has declined to 4.4 percent from 5.0 percent, and is now near what many economists would consider full employment.

U.S. stocks have risen as well as home prices, both of which can also contribute to household wealth. However, that masks deep disparities and wage growth has remained sluggish even though the economy has largely recovered from the financial crisis.

Forty percent of respondents with a high school degree or less said they were struggling financially, one percentage point more than in 2015, at a time when those with more education felt their situation had improved. Seventeen percent of those with a college education described themselves the same way.

There were also differences based on race and ethnicity. Fifty-one percent of white adults said they felt better off than their parents compared to 60 percent of black adults and 56 percent of Hispanic respondents.

Former manufacturing towns helped propel President Donald Trump to the White House last November and there have been growing concerns over the lack of well-paying jobs for those without a college degree.

“The survey findings remind us that many American households are struggling financially, including fully 40 percent of those with a high school diploma or less,” Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard said in a statement.

Elsewhere, the survey showed that improved incomes did not necessarily mean large savings or job stability.

Forty-four percent of respondents said they would struggle to meet emergency expenses of $400, a drop of 2 percentage points from 2015, while 17 percent of workers, and 24 percent with a high-school education of less, said their work schedule was changed by their employer from week to week.

Within that, two-thirds received their schedule six days or less in advance and 37 percent had either on-call scheduling or received notice one day or less in advance, the Fed said.

The survey tallied the responses of 6,643 adults aged 18 and over.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

California’s high traffic fines unfairly punish the poor: activists

FILE PHOTO: A diesel Volkswagen Passat TDI SEL is taken away by a tow truck for having an expired registration, in Santa Monica, California, U.S. on September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California legislators have raised fines for traffic infractions to some of the highest in the United States to generate revenue, and the poor are bearing an unfair burden, losing cars and jobs because they cannot pay them, civil rights activists said on Friday.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area said in a new report that the $490 fine for a red light ticket in California was three times the national average. The cost was even higher if motorists wanted to attend traffic school in lieu of a conviction or were late paying.

“Our state is raising money off the backs of California families to balance the budget for special projects, and it’s using traffic tickets as a revenue generator instead of to protect safety, instead of to do justice, said Elisa Della-Piana, the group’s legal director.

The report, released on Thursday, comes as lawmakers in some states and local jurisdictions have begun to recognize the implications of high traffic fines on the poor and unemployed, especially in minority communities.

Failure to pay a fine on time can lead to a motorist losing his driver license and car, suffer further financial problems and even wind up in jail.

“Studies show 78 percent of Californians drive to work and a very high percentage have to have a license to have a job,” Della-Piana said. “If you can’t afford to pay $500 this month for a traffic ticket, that’s also saying to many families, you lose your household income.”

California lawmakers have begun to take baby steps to address the problem, Della-Piana said, with Governor Jerry Brown lately vetoing new attempts by state legislators to raise fines or tack on new fees to traffic tickets as they grapple with deep budget deficits brought on in part by mushrooming public employee pension obligations.

Brown, a Democrat, has also said in his latest budget proposal that the state should not be suspending driver licenses for failure to pay a ticket.

State Senator Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, has introduced legislation that would reduce fines based on a motorist’s ability to pay.

Della-Piana said California should next stop arresting motorists who cannot afford to pay their tickets. Black people are statistically more likely to be jailed for such offenses, according to the report.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Families of San Bernardino shooting sue Facebook, Google, Twitter

FILE PHOTO: Weapons confiscated from the attack in San Bernardino, California are shown in this San Bernardino County Sheriff Department handout photo from their Twitter account released to Reuters December 3, 2015. REUTERS/San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department/Handout/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Family members of three victims of the December 2015 shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, have sued Facebook, Google and Twitter, claiming that the companies permitted Islamic State to flourish on social media.

The relatives assert that by allowing Islamic State militants to spread propaganda freely on social media, the three companies provided “material support” to the group and enabled attacks such as the one in San Bernardino.

“For years defendants have knowingly and recklessly provided the terrorist group ISIS with accounts to use its social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits,” family members of Sierra Clayborn, Tin Nguyen and Nicholas Thalasinos charge in the 32-page complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

“Without defendants Twitter, Facebook and Google (YouTube), the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” the complaint said.

Spokeswomen for Twitter and Google declined to comment on the lawsuit. Representatives for Facebook could not immediately be reached by Reuters on Thursday afternoon.

Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on a holiday gathering of Farook’s co-workers at a government building in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, 2015, killing 14 people and wounding 22 others.

Farook, the 28-year-old, U.S.-born son of Pakistani immigrants, and Malik, 29, a Pakistani native, died in a shootout with police four hours after the massacre.

Authorities have said the couple was inspired by Islamist militants. At the time, the assault ranked as the deadliest attack by Islamist extremists on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In June 2016, an American-born gunman pledging allegiance to the leader of Islamic State shot 49 people to death at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, before he was killed by police.

In December 2016 the families of three men killed at the nightclub sued Twitter, Google and Facebook in federal court on allegations similar to those in the California lawsuit.

Federal law gives internet companies broad immunity from liability for content posted by their users. A number of lawsuits have been filed in recent years seeking to hold social media companies responsible for terror attacks, but none has advanced beyond the preliminary phases.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by David Ingram and Julia Love in San Francisco; Editing by Dan Grebler and Grant McCool)

At Mosul waterfalls, Iraqis savor small joys of post-Islamic State life

Iraqi families and youths enjoy their Friday holiday at Shallalat district (Arabic for "waterfalls") in eastern Mosul, Iraq, April 21, 2017. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

By Ahmed Aboulenein

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Crowds of Iraqis flocked to the waterfalls of eastern Mosul on Friday to savor simple freedoms like dancing or wearing colorful clothes that were strictly banned during almost three years of Islamic State rule.

Music blasted from tall speakers mounted on pickup trucks and mini-vans. Children splashed in the water in the city’s Shallalat (Waterfalls) district or rode bikes, horses and donkeys in the surrounding park.

It was like a mass picnic, with about 2,000 people out enjoying the sunshine, while fighting between U.S.-backed forces and Islamist militants raged only 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away in the part of Mosul west of the Tigris River.

“We were besieged. We are happy now – families can now go out. Everyone would stay home before,” said Moaayad Ahmed, who was out with his wife and daughter at the park along a tributary to the Tigris north of the city.

“They would ask about negative, irrelevant things,” he added, referring to Islamic State, which took over Mosul in 2014 and was driven out of eastern Mosul in January.

The Sunni Muslim militants enforced a strict interpretation of Islam during their reign which included forcing men to grow long beards and women to cover their faces. Anyone breaking the rules would be severely punished.

That atmosphere was gone on Friday as women ululated with joy, all wearing bright colors rather than the black dress enforced by Islamic State fighters. Beer and whiskey bottles lay on the ground.

“Everything is great now. We could not do this under Islamic State. Back then, everything was forbidden. They would ask the men about their beard length and the women about face veils. Now everyone is happy,” said Mohammed Abu Qassem.

“We would come and they wouldn’t let us picnic. They would say cover your face. This is banned, this is haram, this is halal,” he said, using the words for forbidden and allowed.

Sporting a pink headscarf, his wife Umm Qassem chimed in: “They were harassing us – about men’s pants length, beards and face veils.”

“And whipping …,” her young son interjected.

“We are in heaven now. We were in hell under Islamic State,” she went on.

Even at the waterfall park, signs of war were not far away. There were burned out cars along the road leading into the area.

Iraqi soldiers manned checkpoints at a bridge leading to the park and patrolled the area to ensure the safety of day-trippers who snapped photos with selfie sticks, smoked hookahs and queued to buy shawarma and Moroccan chicken.

“We are very happy we got rid of Islamic State. For three years, we were destroyed, we could not wear stylish clothes,” said Muthana Irshad, who had grown his hair long and donned a gold chain dangling a dollar sign

“They destroyed youths and families. They killed two of my brothers,” he said, before going back to dance with his friends again.

(Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Prices soar, families use river water as Islamic State besieges Syrian city

FILE PHOTO: An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Food prices have soared and families are drinking untreated river water in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said on Monday, as a siege imposed by Islamic State threatens tens of thousands of civilians.

Islamic State militants launched a fierce assault on Syrian government-held areas of Deir al-Zor earlier this month, capturing an area used to supply the city through air drops as the assault cut the state-controlled area in two.

“The escalation of violence threatens the lives of 93,000 civilians, including over 40,000 children who have been cut off from regular humanitarian aid for over two years,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director, in a statement.

“Indiscriminate shelling has reportedly killed scores of civilians and forced others to remain in their homes. Food prices have sky-rocketed to levels five to ten times higher than in the capital, Damascus. Chronic water shortages are forcing families to fetch untreated water from the Euphrates River, exposing children to the risk of waterborne diseases,” he said.

The assault appears to be part of an IS effort to shore up its presence in Syria as it loses ground in Iraq.

Islamic State controls nearly all of Deir al-Zor province, with the government-held part of the city and nearby air base representing the only state-controlled part of the area.

Islamic State encircled the government-held area of Deir al-Zor city in July 2014. Since April 2016, the World Food Program has completed more than 177 air drops to the city. But these stopped on Jan. 15 when IS seized control of the drop zone to the west of a government air base near the city.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Aleppo air strike kills 14 members of one family

A damaged site is pictured after an airstrike in the besieged rebel-held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fourteen members of the same family were killed in an air strike in rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Monday, emergency service workers said, as the Syrian government pursued its Russian-backed campaign to capture opposition-held areas of the city.

A list of the dead published by the Civil Defence included several infants, among them two six-week old babies and six other children aged eight or below. The Civil Defence identified the jets as Russian. The attack hit the city’s al-Marjeh area.

The Civil Defence is a rescue service operating in rebel-held areas of Syria. Its workers are known as “White Helmets”.

The campaign has killed several hundred people since it started last month after the collapse of a truce brokered by Russia and the United States. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the deaths of 448 people in air strikes in eastern Aleppo since then, including 82 children.

Syrian and Russian militaries say they only target militants.

People remove belongings from a damaged site after an air strike Sunday in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria

People remove belongings from a damaged site after an air strike Sunday in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 17, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail


Since the campaign was announced on Sept. 22, the government has captured territory from rebels to the north of the city, and also reported advances in the city itself which rebels have in turn said they have mostly repelled.

A Syrian military source said the army had targeted terrorists in three areas of Aleppo on Monday, killing seven of them. The government refers to all rebel fighters as terrorists.

The Observatory said 17 more people were killed in attacks by Russian jets on Sunday night in the al-Qarterji district of rebel-held Aleppo. That included five children, it said.

The monitoring group also said it had recorded the deaths of 82 people including 17 children in government-held areas of western Aleppo as a result of rebel shelling.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Jump in Border Crossings Reported by Border Patrol

The U.S. Border Patrol arrested nearly 10,000 unaccompanied immigrant children and families caught illegally crossing the border with Mexico in August. This is a 52 percent jump from August 2014, according to statistics published by the agency Monday afternoon. Many immigrants were actually looking for border control agents so that they could be arrested once they had crossed. An increase in the number of such crossings in August is unusual because it is the time of year when hot temperatures make it dangerous to try.  

The Border Patrol reported arresting 6,424 unaccompanied immigrant children and families in August 2014.

Since last October, border agents have arrested more than 35,000 children traveling alone and more than 34,500 people traveling as families, mostly mothers and children. The number of arrests for the year is down nearly 50 percent compared with a year ago, but border agents have reported a jump in arrests since July. Studies show that the children are attempting to cross multiple times.

The August increase comes a year after a surge of more than 68,000 unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many were trying to escape violence in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. For much of the year, the number of illegal border crossings by families and children has been far lower than last year, before increasing in July and August

U.S. officials say there’s a notable increase in the number of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, presenting worries of a possible new refugee influx.