Dis­placed suf­fer in desert camps af­ter flee­ing war

San Francisco Chronicle - - WORLD -

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.

Ah­mad Al-rubaye / AFP / Getty Im­ages

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.

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