As the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah from ISIS continues, the situation for approximately 50,000 civilians trapped in the city is going from bad to worse. What’s more, the latest reports from aid workers on the ground indicate that the vast majority of these civilians simply have no way to reach government controlled areas safety.
Yesterday the Iraqi government announced its troops had entered the city of Fallujah, after intense battles around the outskirts of the city. As they advance, Iraqi troops, as well as Shia militias from the Popular Mobilisation, have used significant amounts of conventional and rocket artillery to pound ISIS into submission. Such weaponry is highly inaccurate, and will inevitably cause civilian casualties. Despite this, some civilians have managed to escape the outlying areas according to Becky Bakr Abdulla worker for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) stationed at a refugee center in Amiriyat al-Fallujah, just south of the main area of fighting.
“We been assisting the approximately 560 families that managed to escape the villages on the outskirts of Fallujah, where there is also intense fighting ongoing” she said.
However, the situation for the remainder of the civilians trapped in within the central area of the city is worse still. According to reports from those who fled, basic supplies are all-but exhausted and people fear for their lives.
“They’ve not had any access to medicine, they’ve not had any access to food, there’s been no fuel, no electricity, and people don’t have vehicles any more. The only drinking water they have is hot water from the river. People have been staying in their houses […] they are afraid for their lives 24/7. They are hearing rockets, bombs and shootings all the time, so they are basically trapped inside the heavy crossfire.” Becky Bakr Abdulla explained.
Additionally, there are alarming reports of widescale starvation within the city, including a mother of 3 children who was reportedly forced to drown her children and herself to avoid a long and painful death from lack of food.
Alarmingly, ISIS also appears to be using the civilians within Fallujah as human shields. Bakr Abdulla relayed the testimony of another civilian resident of the city describing the ways in which ISIS would coerce civilians into staying:
“When rumours got out that we wanted to escape, ISIS came to our house, started beating up out men, and threatened us with our lives. They said if you are planning on escaping, we will kill you all and we will burn down your houses.”
This, combined with the overall fear of being killed in the crossfire while trying to flee, has almost completely prevented civilians from fleeing the city.
“From inside the city we [NRC] only know of one family that managed to escape, and that was last Monday, the same day that the military operation to retake the city began,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla.
“From inside Fallujah [the fighting] has basically stopped people from being able to flee. Where there were once safe routes, there’s now none.”
While some of these civilians will inevitably make their way to safety as the Iraqi Army pushes deeper into Fallujah, and ISIS begins to lose their grip on the city, many more will likely die without decisive action to reopen escape corridors. Furthermore, aid organisations require significant increases in funding just to deal with the refugees they already are dealing with, let alone the traumatised survivors of Fallujah. As such, the Battle for Fallujah could turn into one of the bloodiest episodes of the war against ISIS to-date.
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