50,000 civilians remain trapped in Fallujah as 800 flee
Baghdad // Only 800 people have been able to flee Fallujah since Iraqi forces launched a major offensive to retake the city from ISIL, the United Nations said on Thursday.
Those who managed to leave reported dire living conditions inside the city, where an estimated 50,000 civilians remain.
“We are receiving distressing reports of civilians trapped inside Fallujah who are desperate to escape to safety, but can’t,” said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.
“Food supplies are limited and tightly controlled. Medicines are exhausted and many families have no choice but to rely on dirty and unsafe water sources,” she said.
The UN said most of 800 people who had been able to flee were from outlying areas of the city, which lies only 50 kilometres west of the capital Baghdad.
The UN and other humanitarian agencies have been unable to deliver much of the available assistance due to a lack of access since the operation was launched on May 22-23.
Humanitarian corridors discussed with the Iraqi authorities have largely failed to materialise so far.
The UN’s refugee agency also said on the first day of the operation that supply routes were effectively cut off by the tens of thousands of Iraqi forces surrounding the city, thus also preventing civilians from leaving.
Addressing worries expressed by international humanitarian aid organisations over the safety of civilians trapped inside Fallujah, Iraqi Prime minister Haider Al Abadi said on Thursday that the security forces’ “main concern is how to protect the civilians and to differentiate between the terrorists and innocent civilians”.
ISIL fighters in the Fallujah city centre have been imposing a curfew and forbidding residents to leave their homes, apparently using them as human cover.
Residents contacted inside Fallujah have also said that the amount of bombs and booby traps laid by ISIL in and around the city would make any flight very perilous.
“If they stay in Fallujah they face possible starvation, if they try to escape they risk being killed getting out,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla, media coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The aid group works with refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq and has a camp south of Fallujah.
On Thursday, the NRC said 41 families had fled from the outskirts of Fallujah in the previous 24 hours, bringing the number of escaped families to 114.
The “newly arrived are in state of shock”, said Karl Schembri, the group’s regional media adviser.
One woman told the NRC her family had lived on dry dates and drank from the Euphrates River before escaping from the city. Another family said they had had to hide in a drainage pipe.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters
Updated: May 26, 2016 04:00 AM