Dying in the desert: The villagers trapped in no-man's land

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Story highlights

  • Families are caught in crossfire between the Peshmerga and ISIS
  • They fled their village yet won't leave their cattle. Now their children are dying

(CNN)On a barren patch of desert in northern Iraq, Abu Tiba and hundreds of other civilians wait for the torment to end.

The freezing nights, the food shortages and -- worst of all -- the mortars and artillery shells that land with terrifying regularity on this area of desert, which is a temporary home to sheep and cattle herders.
    "Yesterday a mortar attack killed a baby in his crib," says Abu Tiba. "And they couldn't transfer the mother to a hospital so she died too."
    Um Ali fled the village of Kirfrouk. She and her children are now sleeping in the desert.
    As the battle against ISIS in Mosul and the outskirts intensified, Abu Tiba, his family, friends and around 1,800 other civilians fled the small village of Kirfouk, north of the city.
    They were told to leave their homes by the Kurdish Peshmerga, for their own safety.
    Now they are caught in no man's land in the middle of the fighting between the Peshmerga and ISIS, in an area called Wadi Alahmar.

    Dying of cold

    "The situation is really bad," says Abu Tiba.
    "We are in the open air, in the cold, and we are all families with kids. People are tired. We just received aid, but we are suffering from the cold, winter is coming and people are getting sick -- kids have died from the cold and there have been miscarriages as well."
    Children are dying, Abu Tiba told CCN.
    CNN tried to visit to see the situation for ourselves, but the battlefield was simply too dangerous.
    Instead workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross supplied us with video and interviews when they risked their lives to deliver crucial aid supplies.
    "The trip wasn't easy," the ICRC'S Amro Ibrahim says, but after coordinating with the Peshmerga they managed to bring three trucks full of food and other supplies in.
    Ibrahim says they delivered enough aid for 300 families for one month.

    Their cattle are their lives

    The cattle herders of Kirfouk are risking their lives instead of abandoning their livelihood.
    This bizarre situation emerged because so many of the people of Kirfouk are sheep and cattle herders. When given the option to go to camps for internally displaced people, some felt that they couldn't leave their livelihood behind, and so they stayed despite the danger.
    "We are shepherds, we have cattle, and we remained in the outskirts of the province even under these circumstances," Sheikh Mohammed Younis Ali explains. "And so we move around with our cattle as it's our only source of income".
    Peshmerga fighters say they're doing what they can to protect the people but it's difficult given the ongoing battles with ISIS. Initially, they say they provided aid, until the ICRC stepped in to help.

    Dangerous delivery of aid

    "At the moment we cannot let them cross the area to the villages, but whatever they need, we try to provide it to them," says Major Jaafar Mustafa, a brigade assistant commander.
    "Today the ICRC brought for them food and other things, and the people were very happy with these efforts".
    The dangerous delivery of aid is all they have on which to survive: rice, sugar, lentils, tea -- even shaving kits and shampoo.
    The people of Kirfouk are trying to keep away from the fighting as much as they can, moving around the area between the lines -- but it's difficult. Battles have intensified, and their village is still deemed too unsafe to return to.
    Um Ali told of the conditions she and her family lived through in Kirfouk even before fleeing to the desert."We stayed and endured the shelling, we suffered a lot, and our kids remained without schools," she says.
    "We stayed till the end because they told us to remain in our houses and we listened to the government."

    Sleeping on the sand

    Now, she says, life is even worse.
    "We sleep on the sand at night - how can you expect us to rest?" she asks. "Look at our kids - how they look. My son got a fever from the cold - of course he's sleeping on the ground - and we had a child who died from the cold.
    "Yesterday we were hit by a mortar and one lady and her husband died while they transferred their son to Irbil for treatment."
    Children are reportedly dying of cold in the desert north of Mosul.
    What will become of the hundreds of families here, trying to survive, will depend on what happens on the battlefront.
    So far, the death toll is approximate, certainly more than half a dozen people, according to the ICRC -- both from exposure and shelling.
    The plight of the people of Kirfouk is yet another grim postcard of what the battle against ISIS is doing to the innocent.