Iraq | An estimated 90,000-plus people are trapped in the Iraqi city as the first aid group arrives
by Mindy Belz
Posted 6/09/16, 09:46 am
The first residents from Fallujah to greet humanitarian aid workers were mostly in tears. “They were absolutely traumatized, absolutely fearful,” said Jeremy Courtney, president of the Preemptive Love Coalition.
As the Iraqi army and the Iraqi government’s affiliate militias fight to take back the city, captured by ISIS in January 2014, Preemptive Love became the first and so far only non-governmental organization to penetrate the militarized zone. Starting June 2 the group delivered by truck 150,000 pounds of food and water, enough to support 1,500 needy families who have been caught in the fighting.
As Iraqi forces pressed their campaign against the Islamic militants, entering the Fallujah city limits on Wednesday, the UN quickly revised its estimate of the number of civilians trapped there—from 50,000 to more than 90,000.
“The aid response has been overwhelmed already with the steady flow we’ve seen over the past few weeks,” Courtney told me from Iraq. “No one was even remotely prepared for 50,000.”
Fallujah sits 40 miles west of Baghdad, and it became the first city in Iraq to fall to ISIS. Its residents endured two years of Islamic State brutality before Iraqi forces imposed a six-month blockade to weaken ISIS control—ahead of the military offensive that began May 22. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, died of starvation, even before ISIS drafted many locals, using them as human shields, in recent weeks.
Survivors report they have gone without power, water, food, and medicine. Some families who hid out in their houses existed on dates and yogurt for months, they said, speaking to one another only in whispers so Islamic State fighters wouldn’t discover them.
“I could spend all day talking about our life under the control of ISIS—at the end you won’t believe it,” one survivor told an NBC News crew that reached the area alongside Preemptive Love.
As the battle with Iraq’s army got underway, residents who defied ISIS were executed. Snipers fired on civilians who tried to run away, including hundreds who used inner tubes and makeshift rafts to cross the Euphrates River. Despite the danger, tens of thousands made their way in the last two weeks to desert camps on the city’s outskirts. “They arrived with lots of tears,” said Courtney.
Preemptive Love quickly realized almost no men were among Fallujah’s newly displaced. That meant no one to help carry the 100-pound food parcels back to makeshift shelters. The UN arrived to distribute tents, but according to Courtney, “You’d see women giving up, sitting on top of the tents in the desert for hours with no protection, no help, literally living on sand.”
Most males over age 13 not forced to serve ISIS have been taken into custody by the Iraqi army or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the Shia militia groups deployed by the Iraqi government, according to Courtney. The men from Fallujah are being screened for ties to ISIS. Thamer al-Tamimi, deputy chairman of the PMU Commission, said the men among the displaced would undergo routine investigations that usually don’t last more than 48 hours, then released. He said 603 men from Fallujah had been transferred to Anbar provincial government custody, presumably because of suspected terrorist ties.
“Getting rid of ISIL [or ISIS] is the goal, and the sooner it’s destroyed the better,” said Max Primorac, president of the Institute for Stabilization and Transition and a former U.S. State Department official in Baghdad. “But it will be ugly and messy.”
With the Fallujah battle, Iraqi forces and their allies, like the United States, are gaining an up-close look at the serious challenges ahead to liberate areas from the militants’ control. Military strategists particularly expect the liberating the northern city of Mosul and the surrounding area—involving more than 1 million residents—to come at a great cost.
“Expect more Khmer-Rouge like atrocities to be exposed as the counteroffensive frees more and more lands,” Primorac predicted.
In Anbar province, besides using human shields, ISIS has destroyed or rigged with explosives many buildings. The physical destruction, together with the trauma and humanitarian needs, said Primorac, “means everyone is overwhelmed.”
That makes arrival of non-government aid via Preemptive Love more remarkable. Four years ago, Preemptive Love began sending medical teams to Fallujah, helping to expand the work of Fallujah General Hospital with hard-to-get care and surgery, in particular for children. ISIS fighters destroyed modern equipment provided by Preemptive Love and others and much of the hospital itself. But Courtney—a Christian who lives in Iraq with his wife, 10-year-old daughter, and 8-year-old son—has held on to relationships with local sheikhs and government officials in Anbar and elsewhere.
Courtney insists his group’s effort can—and should—be replicated: “We are not miracle workers. But we did not pop on the scene in 2014. We have a history here.”
When I asked him what it took to get his supply convoy into Fallujah’s militarized zone, Courtney listed half a dozen entities needed to gain clearance. They ranged from the prime minister’s office in Baghdad to local Sunni sheikhs and a religious endowment in Anbar province.
Delivering weighty items like food and water may be a challenge for many NGOs, but it’s also what’s currently needed most. Preemptive Love plans to send another aid delivery to Fallujah within several days and currently has only “one to one and a half weeks’ of money left for these kinds of deliveries,” Courtney said. But the group hopes to do more as the humanitarian fallout from ISIS continues to unfold.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited since its original posting.