For Iraqis fleeing Fallujah, it's 2004 again – but worse

In 2004, Iraqis fled Fallujah in droves as the US military destroyed parts of the city in its fight against Al Qaeda. Now the Iraqi Army is battling militants there.

Jane Arraf
A family displaced from Fallujah living in former US army trailer in the city of Samarra, Feb 22. More than 80 percent of city residents have left as the Iraqi Army encircles the city in a battle with what it says are Al Qaeda fighters. The largest number of those seeking help have come to Samarra, north of Baghdad.

In a trailer relocated from Camp Victory, Eman Rasheed brushes the dust off her clothes and tries to settle her children on thin foam mattresses after fleeing Fallujah for a second time. Children peer out of the stripped-down trailers, once parked in the sand at the main US military base, from behind doors dotted with peeling stickers of American flags and advertisements for energy drinks. 

The old signs taped to the door urging energy conservation when using the heaters or air conditioners seem taunting – there are no lights or heating units. There is no running water. At lunchtime a small pickup truck with large platters of rice and chicken cooked by residents of the city, Samarra, pulls up. A young volunteer jumps out to deliver a tin platter to each door.

For many here, this is their second exodus from Fallujah. Ten years ago, US forces drove out Al Qaeda by destroying large parts of the city in a battle that still haunts the United States, as well as the intensely tribal Iraqi city. In Iraq's vast Anbar Province, where Al Qaeda first made a stand, Fallujah was the fiercest urban battle for American forces since the Vietnam War. 

Fallujah is once again under fire. Al Qaeda-linked fighters took control of parts of Anbar Province in January, prompting a fierce fight between militants and Iraqi forces. This week, Iraqi security forces trying to regain control of the city further sealed off the city, trapping tens of thousands of civilians inside and preventing aid from reaching them. 

Many of the 300,000 people who managed to leave Fallujah and nearby cities before escape routes were closed have taken refuge in overwhelmed communities, dependent on the charity of local citizens and aid organizations. A stalemate between security forces and a collection of tribal fighters backed by Al Qaeda means they are unlikely to go home anytime soon.

In 2004, when American forces warned civilians to evacuate, Ms. Rasheed and her family spent a month in the countryside. The mother of six children, all under the age of 11, says this time is worse.

“You could see planes attacking during the night. The shelling was getting worse and worse so we decided to leave," says Rasheed. 

Like others in the makeshift camp, she says mortar shells had begun to land in their neighborhood. One woman says she narrowly escaped being hit by a mortar that killed her neighbor, Ayoub, while he was standing in the street. 

Rasheed starts to cry as she reaches her brother on the phone. He and their father are still in Fallujah after being turned back at an Iraqi Army checkpoint when they tried to drive into the Western desert to stay with relatives.

Worse than 2004

United Nations officials describe the exodus from Anbar Province as the biggest displacement since Iraq’s civil war seven years ago. Since the conflict began in January, thousands of middle class Fallujah families have taken refuge in the Kurdish north of Iraq, many crowded into holiday resort hotels. Others have been taken in in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

But the majority of those displaced have come to Samarra, two hours north of Baghdad, where a sympathetic Sunni community has done its best to care for them. Even here, security officials are wary of receiving more families and resources are stretched to the breaking point.

At the al-Hamd mosque where families are first received, Saidi Mahmoud al-Boolani says she has moved out of her own home and in with relatives so that 11 families from Fallujah could move in. 

“It’s the good families of Samarra who are helping them,” she says.

Inside the mosque, a few dozen UNICEF boxes with baby supplies are stacked in the corner.  Although local UN officials say almost 30,000 people have fled here in the last few weeks, aid is still only trickling through. The Iraqi government, which describes the battle for Fallujah as a war against Al Qaeda, has promised cash payments to each displaced family but no one has yet seen that money.

“We were hoping it would get better but yesterday there was shelling in our neighborhood and we had to leave,” says Shukria Abed Ahmed, who left her home near the cement factory in Fallujah a week ago for space on the concrete floor of an unfinished school in Samarra. 

“We don’t know if it’s the Army or someone else," she says.

Ms. Ahmed's husband, a driver, died in 2007 after being shot by American forces at a new checkpoint. She sold everything they owned, including the iron gate of their house, to pay for operations, but he still died, leaving her to raise six children. She says she received $1,500 in compensation from the Iraqi government in compensation and nothing from the US military.

Even Ahmed says this time is worse.

“In 2004, the Americans were just hitting military targets,” she says, referring to mortars aimed at insurgent strongholds in her city. “But this is random shelling.”

Leaving the little they have

A dozen other families from Fallujah and nearby Garma are also staying in the unfinished school. Blue plastic tarps cover the frames of windows and doors but don’t keep out the damp or the snakes and scorpions.

These are among Fallujah’s poorest – many of them day laborers making less than $10 a day when there is work. For some, raising the $150 in transportation out of the city took weeks.

Rasheed describes being torn between the terror of staying and the terror of leaving. After a night of shelling they hired a minibus and piled into it. "When we were leaving, a car bomb exploded in the road behind us – we could see the smoke rising," she says.

The most recent arrivals left their houses at dawn with nothing. Fatima, a 5th-grader, whispers to a visitor, “We need clothes.” A little girl wearing a pink sweater over a worn black T-shirt nods.

Despite the displacement of almost an entire city, Fallujah is so far removed from the headlines that a local television crew follows around this reporter, saying she is the first journalist they’ve seen since the fighting began.

In Fallujah itself, UN agencies have stopped shipment of aid due to the risks to their drivers. The Iraqi Red Crescent, with extensive ties to local communities, has managed to continue its own aid convoys. But with the military blocking entrances to Fallujah, it too says it has rerouted them to nearby Ramadi until it can again enter the city.

"We are talking to the Army about letting us in," says spokesman Mohammad al-Quzaee, "but for now we are waiting." 

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