In Mosul camps, traders profit as aid falls short

HASAN SHAM CAMP, Iraq (Reuters) - The Iraqi Kurdish trader threw a large bag of crisp packets over the barbed wire to his Arab customer. The man counted them, bartered briefly, and money changed hands through the camp’s metal fence.

A displaced Iraqi child, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, looks on in Khazer camp, Iraq November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

A few makeshift stalls along, men haggled over cheap mobile phones and SIM cards, which another seller had laid out on a plastic sheet in the dust.

Old Nokia phones were going for 4,000 dinars ($3).

“I’ve already had business here and it’s my first day selling at Hasan Sham camp,” said an upbeat Safin Hamza, a phone salesman from the town of Kalak, about 10 miles (15 km) away.

Dozens of mostly Iraqi Kurdish street sellers from towns close to the Hasan Sham and Khazir camps, which are hosting thousands of people displaced by the fighting to drive Islamic State out of Mosul, have started coming every day to sell food, water and household items to those living inside.

Camp residents who complain of a lack of food and clean water say the makeshift marketplaces fill a crucial gap left by insufficient humanitarian aid, but fear being exploited by businessmen as their money begins to run out.

“There is aid, but some things really aren’t enough, so we have to buy the rest,” said 48-year-old Nada, who lives in a tent in Hasan Sham with her husband and three children.

“We don’t get much bread or drinking water - people have been sick from dirty water in the camp, so those are the things we purchase the most if we can,” she said.

Many residents, who had fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul and its outlying villages as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces advanced against the group, said vegetables were the next most sought-after item.

“But it’s all so expensive, twice the price it was in Mosul - it’s exploitation,” Nada said.

Her husband Zakaria Abu Yahya, a 52-year-old former government health worker, had not worked or received a wage since Islamic State took over Mosul in mid-2014.

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The family was relying for now on their remaining savings and money borrowed from relatives.

Prices varied, he said. “Some traders are fair and the prices are decent, but some do exploit it,” he said.

The sellers insist they do not mark up prices when they come to the camps, and say the main reason for working here is a drop in custom in their own towns since Islamic State swept across the region more than two years ago.

“Before Daesh (Islamic State) there was trade, and customers would come from nearby villages,” said Imran Ablah, 30, who had been coming to Hasan Sham for the last three weeks from his town of Bardarash to sell fruit and vegetables.

“But when Daesh took over people couldn’t leave, and now the villages are destroyed and empty. People are poor or have gone. Some ended up here, there is no work in Bardarash,” he said.


Wahid Abad, also selling vegetables, said some days he made more at the camps than he would in Kalak, and some days less.

“If you own a shop in Kalak and customers are more regular it’s OK, but if like me you sell out of the boot of your car, this is a better bet.”

Many camp residents say they are unable to leave while Kurdish security forces carry out background or security checks, for fear of infiltration by Islamic State fighters, making them a captive market.

The number of makeshift stalls outside Hasan Sham and Khazir’s perimeter fences has steadily increased in recent days, and people crowd around, some taking shopping bags back to their tents.

The World Food Programme’s Michael Huggins said local organizations were providing aid in parallel with the U.N. efforts, and that food aid being provided in camps should be sufficient. WFP aid has reached more than 100,000 people affected by Mosul offensive

“The WFP is striving to reach everybody with monthly assistance ... it sometimes does take a few days before everyone receives their food,” he said.

The United Nations says the offensive to recapture Mosul, which began a month ago, has displaced some 68,000 people, and it is preparing for the need to reach potentially hundreds of thousands more.

In a sign that the situation will get more desperate as camps fill up and people’s pockets empty, some residents were already selling food aid to traders for resale.

“People who have received baby milk but don’t have babies sell it to us,” one trader, Jassem, said. “We resell to families for perhaps a few cents more.”

Ahmed Mohammed, a 16-year-old who fled Mosul two weeks ago, carried a sack of beans sent by the World Food Programme which he said he was trying to sell.

“I’m asking 1,000 dinars for it,” he said, holding the bag that read clearly at the bottom: “not for sale”.

Editing by Dominic Evans