Up to 10,000 people have fled a mostly Christian town in northern Iraq after it was shelled with mortars, former residents and the UN’s refugee agency said on Friday.
Residents of Qara Qosh, east of the militant-held city of Mosul in Nineveh province, left in a rush and had little time to take their possessions, with most fleeing to the Kurdish regional capital Arbil, the UNHCR said.
“Up to 10,000 people from the predominantly Christian communities of Qara Qosh have fled their homes after mortar rounds landed near their ancient town earlier this week,” the UN agency said on its website.
“The latest influx will place further pressure on resources there, particularly housing and fuel supplies.”
The autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq has already seen an influx of people fleeing a Sunni militant offensive, led by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that has swept parts of the country.
Those who fled Qara Qosh had no access to showers or air conditioning, worsening already difficult conditions in Iraq’s scorching summer heat, the UNHCR said, adding many were concerned about a lack of medical care.
The UNHCR and fleeing residents interviewed by AFP said heavy shelling of Qara Qosh and the surrounding area of Hamdaniyah from neighbouring villages had forced them to leave.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the mortar shelling.
“Our children did not sleep for two days because they were afraid from the shelling,” said Azaar Behnam, who was sitting near her five children in a youth centre in Arbil where those who fled were being sheltered.
“We escaped and left everything behind because the sound was really terrible, and life became impossible.”
Other residents of the Hamdaniyah area interviewed by AFP gave similar accounts.
“The weather was very hot, we were suffering, and there was no electricity or water,” said Taala Ishaq, a 65-year-old who fled with 24 relatives, including 18 grandchildren.
“We left the city because we were afraid for our children.”
The population of Qara Qosh is mostly Syriac Catholic, and security forces in the town have long been drawn from local Christians.
A Christian militia also reports to the police and provides security for churches and church property.
Iraq’s Christian community is a shadow of what it once was — it once numbered more than a million, but now there are fewer than 400,000 Christians left across the country.