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80,000 Fallujah civilians escape IS, but face new crisis in desert camps

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Even seasoned aid workers are shocked by the conditions in makeshift camps. The Shiite-dominated government's response is crucial to stabilizing the Sunni province.

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    Sarab Mahmoud, an expectant mother who fled Fallujah, arrived too late to be able to claim a space on a wooden and iron platform covered with a corrugated metal roof, so she sleeps on this open platform instead.
    Jane Arraf
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When Umm Ammar and her family tried to leave Fallujah last week, IS fighters at the checkpoint fired warning shots and started beating her husband and teenage son with plastic cables.

“They started hitting him and hitting him – they were so angry,” she says, turning her son’s face to show welts turning to scar tissue. As she screamed at the fighters who were trying to hang her son Ammar by his hands from a bridge, a commander from the self-declared Islamic State (IS) arrived and told them to let the family go.

The family walked for three hours, holding white flags to prevent Iraqi security forces from shooting at them, until they reached the safety of government-controlled territory. 

As Iraqi security forces close in on Fallujah, ending two years of IS rule, the ordeal for Umm Ammar and tens of thousands of displaced civilians from Fallujah isn’t over.

Once the families manage to flee, Iraqi security forces are detaining men and older boys to investigate possible ties to IS, leaving thousands of women and children in makeshift camps. The camps, just across the river from Baghdad, have little shelter, few toilets, and so little drinking water that children scramble for water bottles thrown from pickup trucks.

The failure of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and international aid to help the estimated 80,000 Fallujah residents who have fled – 20,000 of them in just two days last week – is raising alarm over the prospect of reconciliation with the central government seen as essential to Iraq’s stability.

Fallujah is a traditional hotbed of Sunni militancy where both IS and its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, first took root. Many residents from the city and the wider Anbar province believe they are being punished for having been under the rule of IS, which has made Shiite Muslims its main target.

Months before IS seized Iraq’s third biggest city of Mosul two years ago, it quietly took control of Fallujah, a city where Shiite-dominated Iraqi government security forces were widely hated for mass arrests of its citizens under sweeping anti-terrorism laws. They promised to restore Sunni dignity and return power to the people of Anbar. 

“They told us they were revolutionaries and then we discovered they were Al Qaeda,” says one woman waiting for news of her detained husband. 

Even seasoned aid workers shocked

As IS – under siege by Iraqi forces and US air strikes – retreated from the city, dozens of civilians died while trying to flee, either drowning when they tried to cross the Euphrates River or killed by mortars or rockets. Iraqi forces commanders have said they have control of 80 percent of the city, according to the Associated Press, but an American spokesman for the US-led coalition says only about one-third of Fallujah has been "cleared" of IS forces.

Those civilians who survived the fighting and exodus have ended up in desert camps less than 30 miles from Baghdad, prevented from either going home or making their way out of Anbar. 

The conditions have shocked even seasoned aid workers.

“There was nothing here two days ago,” says Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), stunned by the sight of hundreds of families in what had been an empty field near the town of Amariyat al-Fallujah. “We supply them with packaged food and water bottles but you can see they are sleeping wherever they can … mostly they are on their own.”

The NRC is one of the few aid organizations on the ground delivering UN-provided aid. An increasingly dangerous climate for aid workers in countries in crisis has prompted self-imposed security restrictions among the UN and many Western agencies that bar aid workers from even relatively safe areas of Iraq.

UN agencies say they are underfunded and dependent on the Iraqi government, which is responsible for running the makeshift camps. But after a decade of dysfunctional, corruption-riddled government ministries, Iraq doesn’t have the capability itself to distribute relief supplies. 

Three days after fleeing the Jolan neighborhood of Fallujah with her husband and two small children, Sarab Mahmoud, six months pregnant, had only a small patch of a construction site open to the sun and wind to sleep on. She had arrived too late to be able to claim a space on the wooden and iron platform covered with a corrugated metal roof.

“There is no mattress, no blanket – nothing,” says Ms Mahmoud, clutching two children’s juice boxes thrown down from a truck by municipal workers with pistols tucked into their waistbands.

The sequined long black dress she was wearing when she left home is now covered in dust. She says she managed to find relatives to keep her 3-year-old and 1-year-old child in a tent but there was no room for her. She hasn’t heard any news of her husband since he was detained.

'[IS] told us to eat date pits'

Fallujah, conservative and fiercely tribal, was the scene of the fiercest fighting between US forces and an insurgency that morphed into Al Qaeda after the US invasion of 2003. Two battles for the city in 2004 almost destroyed it.

Tribal fighters persuaded to fight with US forces drove Al Qaeda out of the city in 2007. But just a few years later Iraqi government neglect and mass arrests of Anbar men by Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces helped IS, the successor of Al Qaeda, to gain a foothold in the city. 

While some families originally welcomed IS as a more palatable alternative to the Iraqi government, the organization turned increasingly brutal as money and even food ran out. 

“I asked them for food rations because my husband is in Irbil and I live alone,” says Fawzia, standing with a group of women outside a tent in a dusty field near the city of Amariyat al-Fallujah.

“They said, ‘We can’t give you anything – you have to depend on yourself.’ They told us to eat dates and date pits.”

For the past five months, most of the families fleeing Fallujah say the only food they could afford was from a merchant known as Abu Sami who sold expired dried dates normally used in animal feed.

“We ground the date pits instead of wheat to make bread,” says Fawzia. “[IS] ate very well and they let us starve.”

'90 percent of ISIS is local'

Fawzia had arrived three days ago, and like the other women, had no word of what was happening with her husband in detention.

Although the Iraqi government says it is holding men from Fallujah for 72 hours for screening, some are being held longer.

“My father is in prison,” says a boy named Ahmed, when asked where his father was. When asked why, he said "for investigation."

Most of the children have been out of school for two years since IS took over Fallujah and implemented their own education system, which threw out books about history and geography and focused on weapons training and religion.

One woman says that for six months, IS (also known as ISIS or by its Arabic acronym Daesh) seized the salary of her husband – an employee at the ministry of water resources. 

“We have suffered under Daesh, it’s unjust for our husbands to be detained now,” she says.

For the Iraqi government and security forces, every civilian who stayed in IS-held areas has come under suspicion. While the same holds true in Mosul and other cities, the suspicion is particularly prevalent of residents of Fallujah, where Al Qaeda and its successor had deep roots.

“Ninety percent of ISIS is local,” says Iraqi special forces Brigadier Ali Jamil at a command post on the outskirts of Fallujah, explaining residents needed to be screened to make sure IS fighters weren’t escaping. “Why did all these people stay?”

Although US military commanders have originally said they believed only a few hundred IS fighters were in Fallujah, Brig. Jamil and others say more than 2,500 fighters have been killed in the battle for the city. 

Bridge to Baghdad tightly controlled

At the Bzeibiz bridge between Anbar province and the outskirts of Baghdad, families register with security forces – including Shiite militia members allied with Iraqi security forces – in the hope of being allowed across the small bridge to continue their journeys. Few of them are.

Iraqi authorities cite security reasons in allowing only those who have a guarantor who will vouch for them in Baghdad or those who have the money to get to the Kurdistan region across. And even that doesn’t always work. 

“My parents are in Baghdad but because my husband is from Fallujah they won’t let me go,” says one woman pleading for help from strangers.

At an ice cream shop set up near the bridge in happier times, dozens of families huddle together on the sidewalk, trying to stay under a patch of shade from a tin roof. Crushed water bottles and trash cover the dusty roads lined with children in ragged clothing selling chewing gum. Amid the garbage, one woman tries to bathe her baby in a bowl of water inside a cardboard box.

'Damn those encouraging sectarianism'

Many Sunni Iraqis blame sectarianism by Iraq’s Shiite-led government for the treatment of Anbar civilians.

In Fallujah itself, where a local emergency force is taking over security in neighborhoods cleared by Iraqi special forces, police Col. Abdul Aziz Faisel Hameed says he is also suspicious of those who stayed.

“They made a big mistake,” says Colonel Hameed, who himself is from Fallujah. “Most people left Fallujah in 2014 or 2015 but there were some stupid families who stayed here and came under ISIS control.”

But Hameed, whose family was attacked and his house blown up by Al Qaeda, says the problem isn’t sectarian.

“Damn those who are encouraging sectarianism,” says Hameed, in the living room of a house turned into a police station. He takes the hand of a young special forces corporal from the Shiite south. 

“He is from the south and he is fighting for Anbar. He is sacrificing his blood for me.”

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