People fleeing the fighting in Mosul's eastern Arbagiah neighborhood are seen from inside an Iraqi special forces humvee on November 13, 2016. Photograph: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Irbil, Iraq CNN  — 

When Iraqi troops launched the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS in late October, many families in the city were hopeful. After two years living under the militant group’s draconian rule, they believed they would be freed in a matter of days.

Visions of liberation soon gave way to a much bloodier reality. Seven weeks into the operation, only a small sliver of the city’s eastern neighborhoods has been declared cleared and secured.

Coalition forces are now locked into a grueling house-to-house battle for the city, a fight that will take many more months. ISIS has resisted fiercely – blowing up hundreds of car bombs, placing snipers on the rooftops of homes, and even using civilians as human shields.

For the people trapped behind enemy lines, the protracted offensive means being caught in the crossfire with little access to clean water, electricity, medical care, and food staples.

While more than 30,000 people have managed to escape eastern Mosul since the offensive began, about 1 million are still trapped in the city as fighting rages around them.

A few residents inside ISIS-controlled Mosul agreed to speak to CNN by phone about the sense of hopelessness they say has set in.

Their names have been changed for their safety.

Um Ibrahim

Thirty-five-year-old Um Ibrahim spoke to CNN from a hidden corner of her rooftop, fearing ISIS militants might catch her. The terror group bans cell phones and being found with one can result in medieval-style punishment.

“I asked my neighbors to help me recharge my cell phone because they have a small power generator,” Um Ibrahim said.

“I call my family members, who live in different neighborhoods in Mosul, every day to check on them. We could die any moment.”

“Sounds of explosions and mortars have become part of our daily life. A few weeks ago we used to scream when we heard sounds of loud explosions, but we don’t even blink. I don’t want my children to live in this sick environment.”

Um Ibrahim said the slow advance of the country’s Counter Terror Forces frustrates her. She has watched soldiers struggle for six days to liberate just two residential blocks near her home.

“I can’t wait for the Iraqi forces to liberate our neighborhood. We can’t wait to leave our house and walk in the streets. I feel like my house has become a prison for me and my family.”

Um Ibrahim started to cry as she spoke about losing hope that the army will ever reach her street. She told CNN she is dreaming of the day when she can go outside freely, to buy sweets and toys for her children.

“I tell my children to wait a few more days and Iraqi forces will be here. I know I am giving them a false hope, but I have to because my children keep asking me about the day they can leave the house.”

Abu Ibrahim

“If ISIS finds out I am calling a journalist they would kill me and take my family members as slaves. I agreed to speak to you because we started losing hope,” Abu Ibrahim, Um Ibrahim’s husband, told CNN.

“Please let our voices reach the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces. Tell them we are dying inside our homes. They can’t be that slow.”

Abu Ibrahim said they sometimes see ISIS fighters outside their home, launching mortar rounds from their front yard. “If we refused, they will consider us apostates and they will kill us,” Abu Ibrahim explains.

“I have to be with my wife every time she wants to go into the kitchen because she is afraid ISIS will see her through the window. Do you think it’s a normal life?”

“We are running out of water and food, and honestly, we are losing hope that security forces will come to save us from these murders.”

Om Noor

When ISIS took hold of the city’s institutions, Om Noor’s husband lost his job as an employee at Mosul College.

“They told my husband he would have to support them [ISIS], but he refused and he has been out of work ever since,” Om Noor told CNN.

The family struggled to make ends meet, so when they heard that Iraqi troops would soon liberate eastern Mosul they left their home in the western portion of the city and went to stay with Om Noor’s grandfather in Quds neighborhood, in the city’s east.

“We thought we would be liberated in just one week. I didn’t even bring much clothes or supplies with me.”

The family has spent over a month caught between ISIS militants and Iraq’s Counter Terror Forces. Their 6-year-old daughter is terrified of the constant mortar shelling and gunfire. She often tries to hide in her mother’s clothes.

“My husband has lost hope and he says there will be no liberation and we should go back home. But I’m scared that if we go back they will kill us.”

For now, Om Noor says she still believes that freedom will come.

“I want to live a life. I want my husband to have a job. I want my daughter to have normal things. There is no life under ISIS.”


Raad, 21, lives in western Mosul where ISIS still maintains a tight grip and has not yet faced advancing Iraqi troops. News of the horrors civilians are facing on the other side of the Tigris River, which splits the city, has the former college student wary of any promises of liberation.

“At the beginning, we were so happy to hear Iraqi forces were able to liberate a few neighborhoods in eastern Mosul with few days,” Raad told CNN.

“Now we are all afraid this could happen to us. We all want to live a normal life, we all want to get rid of ISIS, but we are hearing horrible stories about families stuck between ISIS and Iraqi forces.”

“At least in this part of the city we have water and electricity here. The markets are open. Yes, it’s not a normal life here, but we don’t want to end up like the eastern part of Mosul.”

“Iraqi government is responsible to free our city from ISIS, and it should be responsible for our safety.”

“They should have had a better plan. It’s been weeks and we have not seen Iraqi security forces making any progress in eastern Mosul.”

Um Sidra

Um Sidra bought her children notebooks as a token of her promise that they would resume their education when Mosul was liberated. The notebooks have become among the family’s most prized possessions.

“When the shelling starts we tell them, ‘please don’t cry, when the army comes you will go back to school.’ And my daughter asks me, ‘mama, when the army comes will the army hurt us?’ I tell her no, the army will help us.”

The weeks of violence have morphed the minds of Um Sidra’s children, who range in age from 10- to 3-years-old.

“Even their games are about war. Their thinking has changed. They pretend they have guns and mortars and say they will fire on each other.”

“My youngest daughter is crying always. We don’t know where to hide them [children]. We don’t know how to keep them patient and entertained. The past two days they have been crying all the time. They are scared that we will be hit by the shelling.”

“My daily life is just shelling and mortar rounds. It is just terror and fear.”

Despite the dangers, Um Sidra’s husband is forced to go outside on occasion to purchase supplies or draw water from the community’s makeshift well.

“Every time he goes out he is risking his life. I feel like I am going to die every time he steps out of the house. I don’t want him to leave the front door but he has to.”

Um Luma

“We all live, cook and sleep in one room with no windows at the corner of the house. This is our life now,” Um Luma told CNN.

“I wanted my children to be doctors and engineers, now I only pray to God to keep them safe. I gave up all my dreams.”

“We just want the sounds of explosions to stop. We can’t live like this anymore. Everyday we think it’s our last day. Please help us, oh people please help us.”

The widow, who is a mother of five, began to cry as she pleaded for the world to rescue her family.

“We are hearing ISIS fighters started using people as human shields to cross the bridges between eastern and western Mosul. They are hiding among civilians. This is just the beginning, God knows what will they do next if this battle takes a longer time.”

As the sounds of explosions intensified, the phone line disconnected. Ten minutes later, CNN reached Um Luma again. She said there were mortars landing nearby, but that she and her family were unharmed.

“The situation is very dangerous. Every morning when I wake up, I start touching my children while they are still sleeping to see if they are ok and alive.”

Since ISIS took control of the city in June 2014, Um Luma has not allowed her children to go to school.

“My children kept asking me if they can go to school, but I told them they [ISIS] would recruit you to fight with them. They would turn you into killers and terrorists,” Luma said.

“I am lucky to have all my children in front of me laughing and playing. If something happens to them, I would die.”


Twenty-six-year-old Ismail is the head of a household of eight. He says he feels disappointed in the Iraqi military’s progress and fearful ISIS will do absolutely anything to keep control.

“If the battle continues like this, very slow, then ISIS will start forcing us to fight with them. I am afraid they would take our families as hostages to force me and my brothers to fight against the Iraqi security forces,” Ismail said.

“I really believe this will happen, and I am warning the Iraqi government that they have to take a serious action to end this battle as soon as possible. It’s not to their or our advantage if this battle drags out.”

“I see my mom praying and crying everyday. We can’t do anything to stop her pain. We had a hope when Iraqi forces entered Mosul but now this hope is fading.”

Luke Rotzler in New York and Eliza Mackintosh in London contributed.