Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

No relief for desperate residents who fled Fallujah

Zaineb, 11, who is in a camp for displaced Iraqis who fled Fallujah, shows the scars on her arm from being injured in a coalition air strike. Florian Neuhof for The National
Zaineb, 11, who is in a camp for displaced Iraqis who fled Fallujah, shows the scars on her arm from being injured in a coalition air strike. Florian Neuhof for The National

Near Fallujah, Iraq // A group of women draw their children close to shield them from the scorching midday sun, as they huddle under the roof of an unfinished caravan in the barren desert of Iraq’s Anbar province.

It is all the shelter they have since escaping Fallujah five days earlier with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

Everything is in short supply at the Dary 2 Camp that was built to accommodate those displaced by war against ISIL, but these people are trapped here, with no hope of moving on to Baghdad as some had counted on.

“We haven’t had a shower yet as there is no water. We have received no food. All we eat is melons, because that is all we can afford,” says an elderly woman.

After four weeks of fighting, Iraqi forces took Fallujah’s central government compound on June 16, and ISIL withdrew from key areas of the city.

Tens of thousands of trapped civilians have since taken the opportunity to escape, risking death or injury from ISIL snipers and explosives.

The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that 30,000 people fled the city in the following three days. A UN report from June 19 put the total number of displaced from Fallujah since the battle began a month ago at 83,000.

Although aid agencies were expecting a sudden exodus of civilians, little was done to prepare for the influx.

In the camps surrounding Fallujah, tents now often house more than two families. Aid agencies are scrambling to supply food, water and medical services as heat exhaustion and dehydration begin to take their toll.

The vast majority of civilians only made it out of Fallujah after weeks of heavy fighting and intense shelling, and months of siege that cut off all food and medical supplies from the outside. Towards the end, they survived on the dates growing on palm trees.

Some civilians trying to escape were shot by ISIL or stepped on improvised explosive devices placed by the insurgents to slow the advance of Iraqi forces.

“There were a lot of explosions, and we saw a lot of bodies on the streets of people that had died,” says a young woman, who like the others in the camp does not want to give her name.

Many of those who made it out are wounded, such as 11-year-old Zaineb, whose arm was injured in a coalition air strike. Others have not been able to get hold of medicine to treat existing conditions.

After two years of living under ISIL control, they have never been more in need of government services. But beyond the guards posted at camp entrances, there are no signs of a government presence.

Behind closed doors, aid agencies complain bitterly about the lack of interest shown by the government in providing for the displaced, and the red tape preventing them from entering Anbar province.

Exposed to the sweltering heat, the families who risked their lives escaping Fallujah fare a little better than inside the city.

“When we were in our homes, at least we had a roof over our heads. If I knew we would be treated like this, I would have stayed in Fallujah,” says one woman.

But in Fallujah, the battle continues to rage as elite counterterrorism units turn the screw on the insurgents still holding out. Heavy artillery fire supports the advancing Iraqi troops, who are met with ISIL mortar fire.

Baghdad, only 60km from Fallujah, is no option either.

At the Bzebiz pontoon bridge on the Euphrates, families are crammed on to blankets under large tin roofs that look like oversized market stalls. Some are recent arrivals from Fallujah, others have been waiting here for weeks, prevented from crossing from Anbar into Baghdad governorate by police guarding the bridge.

At this de facto internal border, only those with an invitation from a Baghdad resident are allowed into the capital. The people stranded at the bridge say this is a deliberate policy to keep the Sunni population of Fallujah out.

“The police told us that if you are from Habbaniyah, from Saqlawiyah or Fallujah they won’t let you cross. They twisted my arm and said: ‘Next time we will do worse’,” says an old woman from Fallujah who declined to give her name. Habbaniyah and Saqlawiyah are townships near Fallujah.

A hotbed of Sunni militancy since the US invasion in 2003, Fallujah and its inhabitants are viewed with deep distrust by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government. Those seeking medical treatment in Baghdad are turned back even if they have a referral from a local hospital.

“If it says Saqlawiyah in your ID they won’t let you cross the bridge. All I want is to cross so I can take him to the hospital,” says Nadia, a desperate young mother with a sick six-month-old son.

Asma Awad, a woman from the Anbari town of Hit, says the police refuse to let people pass unless a US$200 (Dh735) bribe is paid for each person.

Even as the women fear for the well-being of their children, and struggle to cope in the harsh conditions in the camps, their biggest worry remains the fate of their husbands, fathers and sons. All men of fighting age are rounded up for security screenings as soon as they reach government forces. Many have been missing for weeks.

The lucky ones are detained by the army, which passes on some information about the men’s whereabouts to their families. The less fortunate ones are picked up by the Shiite militias that form a cordon around Fallujah, and who have been accused of the torture and killing of civilians escaping the city.

The camps are almost devoid of men – only a few old and disabled have been exempted from the screening process.

“Our men escaped from misery in Fallujah, now they are being put through misery again,” laments one woman as she sits on the floor of a caravan that has not been fitted with walls, exposing her to the gusts of hot wind whipping up the desert sand.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: June 23, 2016 04:00 AM

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