UNHCR helps residents come home to Iraq's third largest city
Fallujah, Iraq, Jan. 12 (UNHCR) - It's been a slow trickle. Since late December, residents of the former resistance stronghold of Fallujah have slowly come back to find out what has become of their homes.
They had been banned from entering the city until Dec. 23 because of the prolonged fighting between coalition forces and insurgents that forced almost the entire population - some 250,000 people - to take refuge elsewhere.
According to the Iraqi authorities, some 85,000 people have entered Fallujah, Iraq's third largest city, in the past three weeks. At first, it was mainly heads of families, who came back to assess the damage to their properties and pick up what was left of their belongings. Some had only bad news to take back to their families: their houses had been destroyed, or badly damaged. But others decided to come back for good. Slowly, whole families are beginning to return to the city.
UNHCR leads the United Nations inter-agency taskforce for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq. The refugee agency has made available to the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration tents, blankets, mattresses, cooking stoves and heaters for immediate distribution to families returning to Fallujah. The Iraqi authorities have recently asked for additional relief items, which UNHCR has agreed to release, in anticipation that more people will move back in the weeks ahead.
There is still no official count of how many residents are now permanently back in Fallujah. According to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground, about ten per cent of those who have entered the city since late December - or roughly 8,500 people - have decided to remain for good.
The Iraqi authorities say half of Fallujah's eighteen districts are now open for residents who wish to return. (The districts are: Al Bazaza, Al Jolan, Al Moalemmen, Al Dubat, Al Dubat 2, Al Resala, Al Shohadaa, Al Gogayth and Al Andulus.) However, it is estimated that in these nine quarters alone, some 3,500 houses have been badly damaged.
"Short and medium term plans for the reconstruction of these houses and other infrastructure ought to be made known to the affected residents as soon as possible, in order to restore confidence and build trust," said Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Kamel Morjane.
Throughout the city, municipal water is available for only a few hours a day and the electricity supply is sporadic. Most schools are also out of commission. The Fallujah general hospital is open, but it is located outside the areas open for residents, who have to go through checkpoints to reach it.
The majority of Fallujah's residents are still outside the city, living with relatives, friends or anyone who will give them a room or let them camp on the ground of their properties.
Just before Christmas, in cooperation with its partners, UNHCR started distributing emergency supplies to some 216,000 displaced people from Fallujah now scattered throughout the Anbar Governorate. For that particular purpose, UNHCR has already handed out 3,800 blankets, 2,000 mattresses, 300 tents and 300 cooking stoves and is releasing an additional 30,000 blankets and 2500 cooking stoves.
Like all other United Nations agencies, UNHCR has a very limited presence on the ground in Iraq, and works very closely with NGOs, both national and international, inside the country.
Through one of these NGOs, the refugee agency is conducting a survey of some 4,500 people to assess the needs and intentions to return amongst the displaced people of Fallujah. Many of the IDPs say that they intend to stay in their current locations to see what will happen after elections scheduled for January 30.
Initial results from a small sample group also show a new trend: 17 per cent of families in that group have purchased land in their new place of residence. Although it is too early yet to draw any conclusion from this number, it may suggest that some IDPs are considering settling outside Fallujah for a long time to come.