Displaced suffer in desert camps after fleeing war
AMIRIYAH AL-FALLUJAH, Iraq — Tens of thousands of Iraqis who survived a harrowing flight from Fallujah now find themselves in sprawling desert camps with little food, water or shelter. The growing humanitarian crisis less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad has reinforced the region’s deep-seated distrust of the government and could undermine recent gains against the Islamic State group.
As Iraqi forces battled their way into the city and Islamic State militants melted away, Khaled Suliman Ahmed fled in a wheelchair, joining hundreds of others fleeing on foot into the desert. When the wheelchair broke down after 6 miles, his sons and wife took turns carrying him over their shoulders, and when they saw the tents in the distance, they assumed their nightmare was over.
“I thought we were going to be saved from hell and brought to heaven,” Ahmed said, “but we were surprised by what we found here.”
What they found was a sprawling camp in the desert with little food or water, and nowhere near enough tents to shelter the tens of thousands of civilians who had descended on it. They joined thousands of people living out in the open, where midday temperatures approach 120 degrees.
Iraqi forces declared Fallujah “fully liberated” on Sunday. Months of planning went into the military operation to retake the city, which had been held by the Islamic State for more than two years and was the group’s last stronghold in the vast Anbar province. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has hailed a recent string of victories against the militants in Anbar and last week proclaimed that Fallujah had “returned to the embrace of the nation.”
But the government was ill-prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis now unfolding. The United Nations estimates 85,000 people have fled their homes in the past month. The conditions in the camps are reinforcing perceptions of a government that is hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. That could fuel unrest in the overwhelmingly Sunni province, which has a history of rebellion against the Shiite-led government going back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
A government spokesman acknowledged that authorities had been surprised by the wave of displaced, and said an emergency allocation of another $8.5 million in aid was approved earlier this month.
“The large number of displaced people and the quick movement has made it very hard to meet their needs,” said government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi.
Women displaced from the city of Fallujah line up to collect aid distributed by the Norwegian Refugee Council at a newly opened camp south of the city where they are taking shelter.