Families flee militant-held Fallujah after months of violence

Iraqi government offensive in Anbar forces more than 250,000 civilians across the province to flee homes since April.

Rasmiyya, 65, wipes a tear from her eye as she recalls the story of losing her leg, as she sits in her tent in a camp for internally displaced Iraqis in Dhuha al-Rawii in Baghdad's western Mansour district.   © © UNHCR/ Ed Ou

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 23 (UNHCR) - Rasmiyya, 65, said she knew she finally had to escape Fallujah after the operation to amputate her right leg.

Months of Iraqi government bombings aimed at targeting militants had made the once 15 minute journey to a doctor's office a life threatening trip. Without the routine appointments to regulate her diabetes, the disease ate away at the blood vessels in Rasmiyya's leg and the limb had to be surgically removed above the knee.

"I couldn't get any treatment," Rasmiyaa said looking away from the bandaged stump tucked under her abaya. A frail figure, she explained that for weeks as her condition worsened her son Khudayir tried to find ways to move her past militant checkpoints and out of the city.

But as violence escalated militants shut down the main roads leading out of town, preventing civilians from fleeing.

While parts of Fallujah, just west of Baghdad in Anbar province, have been under militant control for more than a year, increased clashes following the launch of an Iraqi government offensive in Anbar have forced more than 250,000 civilians across the province to flee their homes since April. Since the beginning of the crisis early last year more than a million Iraqis from Anbar have been displaced. Of those, close to 350,000 have ended up in Baghdad province.

In the week before Rasmiyya and her family fled in early July, she says the security situation in Fallujah rapidly deteriorated. While the sounds of clashes and bombings in the distance had become commonplace, violence began spilling into her neighborhood for the first time. "A rocket fell just a few streets away," Rasmiyya said, "even the house next to us was destroyed by the blast."

For months electricity had been intermittent to nonexistent, work dried up and the prices of food skyrocketed. A bag of flour that once cost 12,000 Iraqi dinars now costs 50,000, Khudayir said.

"I wanted to bring her to Baghdad weeks ago," Khudayir said explaining the militants eventually made an exception for his mother because of her medical condition. The militants told me, "take the mother and wife and children, but you must return." Khudayir paid the militant group 1 million Iraqi dinars, or close to $900 for his family's passage and as insurance he would return. But Khudayir explained as the only male family member with his wife, mother and children in Baghdad, he feels obligated to stay.

Khudayir's family is now sheltering in Dhuha al-Rawii in Baghdad's western Mansour district, a small camp of 175 families living in tents built of canvas and wooden stakes atop packed earth covered by woven plastic mats. UNHCR provided these families and thousands of others who have recently fled Anbar with shelter and supplies such as mattresses, blankets and plastic cans for storing water and fuel.

"As UNHCR we have two foremost concerns," said Bruno Geddo, UNHCR's representative in Iraq. "First, for displaced people to be able to access a safe place; second, to receive sufficient assistance for them to settle down and set up a household in their new location.

"Sometimes for humanitarian workers logistics can be distracting. But, when you sit down with a family and hear how our assistance helped them to get though the crisis of displacement and adjust to a new life, it is at that moment that you realize there is a story behind the figures."

Under normal circumstances the drive from Baghdad to Fallujah, about 70 kilometers, takes just over an hour. For Khudayir and his family, the journey took over a week. Doubling back to the west before reaching a crossing point on the Euphrates river, they then had to wait for days before government authorities allowed them passage to Baghdad.

For one long drive taking back roads to bypass violence in Amariyat Fallujah, the family was packed with another five people in the back of a pickup truck for a daytime drive through the desert lasting more than twelve hours.

"I was so afraid," Fatima said, "and the children too, they understood what was happening." While Fatima's husband focused on keeping his mother comfortable as she made the journey in a wheelchair that had to be lifted in and out of cars and trucks, Fatima said she tried to calm her children, "I would tell them 'don't worry, I'm with you.'"

Tired, thirsty and hungry the family arrived at al-Rawii camp the night after being allowed to cross the Euphrates. "All we could do when we arrived was sit down and drink water," Fatima said. While thankful for the safe place to stay for now, she and her husband admit even their immediate future is uncertain.

"We don't know what's going to happen in the future," Khudayir explained "we are just trusting in God".

Since arriving at the camp, Rasmiyya has been able to receive medical attention for her diabetes, visiting a doctor every three or four days. A sore on her remaining leg is freshly bandaged and she says she's no longer in constant pain. But her daughter in law explains it appears the treatment didn't come fast enough.

"Yesterday the nurse told us the other leg needs to be cut," Fatima said lowering her voice so her mother in law couldn't hear. "She doesn't know yet," Fatima said, "I just couldn't tell her."

By Susannah George in Baghdad