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Starving Iraqis risk all to flee IS’ crumbling rule

AMRIYAT AL-FALLUJAH, Iraq: Displaced Iraqi children stand outside a tent at a newly-opened camp in this government-held town on Sunday. — AFP
AMRIYAT AL-FALLUJAH, Iraq: Displaced Iraqi children stand outside a tent at a newly-opened camp in this government-held town on Sunday. — AFP

AMRIYAT AL-FALLUJAH, Iraq: Eight hands stretch towards the aluminium plate – it’s the first meal of rice this Iraqi family who just escaped jihadist rule in the Fallujah area has had in two years. The tent has just been put up, a sheet of bubble wrap strewn on the gravel as a makeshift rug and the heat is searing but Nasra Najm, her daughter and grandchildren have a smile on their face. “We had been dreaming of this. I wasn’t sure rice existed anymore, so when we saw this plate, we couldn’t believe it,” said the elderly woman with traditional tattoos on her face.

She and her relatives reached the camp in Amriyat al-Fallujah 12 hours earlier, after walking through much of the night to dodge the surveillance of the Islamic State group. Iraqi forces a week ago launched a broad operation aimed at retaking the city of Fallujah, one of IS’s most emblematic bastions, in the western province of Anbar. The progress of pro-government forces has created a window for some civilians to flee from the city’s outlying areas and attempt to reach safety.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs several camps in Amriyat al-Fallujah, south of Fallujah, is providing shelter and assistance to around 3,000 people who fled over the past week. Their stories give an insight into the dire conditions endured by the estimated 50,000 people still trapped inside a city which has been largely cut off from the rest of Iraq for months. In Nasra’s tent, Maher Sabih, a tall middle-aged man explained it this way: “Look I used to weigh 103 kilos (235 pounds), now I’m on 71.”

All the newly-arrived displaced civilians from the Fallujah area have the same stories of being deprived of rice or bread. “It was an ordeal over there. We had to grind the stones from the dates to make flour,” said Madiha Khudhair, sitting in her empty tent with her two daughters. “It’s very sour, no one wants to eat that,” said the woman, who had been living in a village under IS rule near Fallujah. Her sunken eyes, framed by a red scarf wrapped around her head, started watering when she recounted their flight. “We just left it up to God, picked up our things and left. Actually, we ran. At one point, we spotted one of their (IS) trucks and we all crouched. Eventually, we made it,” she said.

Risk Everything

Rasmiya Abbas, a black-cloaked elderly woman cradling her five-day-old grandson, said IS (Daesh) fighters would ration the population and keep the good food for themselves. “A bag of sugar lately was around 50,000 dinars ($40). For the rice, they sometimes gave a quarter of a kilo, barely enough to make a meal for the children,” she said. “We only had that dark barley bread. If you saw it, you wouldn’t eat it. Daesh kept the rice, the good bread and all the best things for themselves,” she added.

All of the 252 families housed in the Fallujah camp that opened on Saturday arrived over the weekend. In the sand-colored tents all tethered in neat lines, exhausted children sleep in the shade to recover from their journey and shelter from the noon sun. Those who are awake fill plastic bottles from a water truck while others queue with their mothers in front of an ambulance handing out basic medicine.

Nearby, workers scramble to build latrines for the brand new camp’s booming population. The Fallujah battle yielded its biggest wave of displaced civilians on Sunday but as the fighting intensifies – forces led by Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service entered the streets of the city yesterday – a bigger influx is to be expected. “We’re pre-positioning more aid in order to give it to more families we’re hoping will be able to escape,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq media coordinator.

Ahmad Sabih said reaching the camp is dangerous. “You have to try to pick a clear road but those who didn’t know their way very well got killed,” said the 40-year-old father, who reached the camp in Amriyat al-Fallujah at 4:00 am. “I just decided to risk everything. I was either going to save my children or die with my children.” – AFP

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