Escape from Falluja

Since the start of the military offensive by Iraqi forces to retake the city of Falluja on 23 May, a chorus of voices including the United Nations and humanitarian and human rights organizations has pleaded for the lives and safety of an estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped in the besieged city.

Because IS fighters prohibit the use of phones and the internet and brutally repress any form of dissent and communication with the outside word, it is impossible to precisely assess the scale of civilian suffering in Falluja.

But residents who have managed to escape gave distressing accounts to Amnesty International of the possible dangers those fleeing the city face. These include being caught by IS fighters and executed on the spot, treacherous routes out contaminated by mines and other explosive remnants of war, and the risk of arrests and other revenge attacks by the government-backed Popular Mobilization Units(predominantly Shi’a militias).

A resident from the outskirts of Falluja who arrived at a camp for internally displaced people in Amariyat al-Falluja on 24 May described to us the desperate situation inside the city, which has been under siege for months:

“There is nothing in Falluja: no food, no medical services, no electricity, no gas… We had to bring water from the [river] bank; we took out old dates that have been in storage for five years to feed our children… We were living under lots of shelling…My niece died in shelling six months ago; so did two other relatives…Since I got here, I heard that two other cousins were killed.”

A man who arrived at the camp on 23 May recounted his treacherous journey to escape the outskirts of Falluja. He said he and 87 others, including children and the elderly walked, for four hours passing through water ditches and that they came under fire from IS forces.

“My 11 year old brother was shot in the leg; I carried him on my shoulders for the rest of the way… I heard that a woman and her toddler were killed that night en route… We knew the journey would be hard, but we couldn’t stay…The situation in the town is desperate… People are starving to death, some are committing suicide,” he said.

A woman who made the same journey a day later together with 19 other families told Amnesty International said IS fighters prevented people from leaving.

“We had to be smuggled out…It was a very difficult journey, we would walk a bit and then sit and rest…We took nothing with us, just our children on our backs… we were warned that there are mines on the road; we heard that a woman stepped on a mine and died.”

The Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most eminent Shi’a cleric, have called on the forces attempting to retake Falluja to protect civilians. However, it remains to be seen how far this is being applied, with reports of heavy shelling of the city. Iraqi forces must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and refrain from using explosive weapons with wide area effects, including artillery and mortars, in populated civilian areas. Several residents also expressed fears to

Amnesty International that IS is seeking to use civilians as human shields, particularly in the centre of the town – a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

Other residents of Falluja might be deterred from leaving the city due to fear of reprisals and punishment by militias for their presumed support for IS. In a video widely circulated online ahead of the operation on Falluja, Aos Al-Khafaji, a commander of the Abu Fadl al-Abas militia, part of the PMU, called for the “purification” of the city of Falluja, which he described as a source of “terrorism”. It is crucial that the Iraqi authorities facilitate the safe exit of civilians wishing to leave Falluja and prevent any reprisal attacks.

Residents who escaped Falluja told Amnesty International that all men were initially detained, ostensibly for security screening and interrogation.

“Once we saw the army and raised white flags, the men were separated from the women and children… We [men] were taken to the Amiriyat [al-Falluja] Directorate [police station]; we stayed there for three nights and were interrogated by officers in military uniform,” said one man who escaped.

He said they were then driven to an army unit while blindfolded and with their hands tied. At checkpoints they were kicked, insulted and beaten by members of the PMU. They were eventually released after their names were checked on a computer database.

The UN estimates that some 800 people have fled the city and its outskirts since 22 May. As further people manage to escape, we are likely to hear more horrific stories in the coming days. We can only hope that they are granted safe passage out of the city, and will have homes and families to return to one day. Those who remain trapped in Falluja should be provided with humanitarian aid immediately to ensure no one in the city starves to death.

This article first appeared on the Huffington Post website