Iraqis displaced by Islamic State fighting face dwindling resources

Khaled, left, and his wife, Ahlam, sit in their temporary housing at a camp for internally displaced persons in Irbil, Iraq. An early flood of aid helped establish housing with some modern amenities, but dwindling resources mean many families struggle to afford food or find clean water.


By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 23, 2015

IRBIL, Iraq — With the war in Iraq intensifying as pro-government forces try to stem the tide of Islamic State militants and prepare to wrest back control of cities like Ramadi and Mosul, international aid organizations say resources are drying up for the millions of people displaced by the fighting.

When militants with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, seized the city of Ramadi in western Iraq on May 15, thousands more displaced people streamed toward Baghdad, according to the United Nations. What American military leaders initially called a “setback” had deadly serious repercussions for families on the ground.

The flood of 25,000 people newly displaced from Anbar has strained already dwindling resources, Lise Grande, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator, said in a statement on May 18.

“Thousands of people had to sleep in the open because they didn’t have places to stay,” she said. “We would be able to do much more if we had the funding.”

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, as many as 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced by months of fighting between pro-government forces and Islamic State militants, who have seized wide swaths of territory in the west, center and north of the country,

Refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria continue to suffer, too, but in many cases, the plight of people displaced in Iraq has failed to gather as much media attention, researchers for the Brookings Institution concluded in a recent report.

“We don’t hear much about the humanitarian fallout from the current crisis in Iraq, but Iraq now has one of the highest populations of internally displaced people in the world,” the report said.

That disparity in attention has also led to a disparity in funding and resources, the researchers reported. The U.N. has received 5 percent of the emergency funding it has requested for Iraq versus 15 percent for Syria.

“While both crises need further funding, it appears that Iraq’s massive displacement crisis is being overshadowed by Syria,” the Brookings report concluded. “Like Syria, Iraq has been designated by the U.N. as a Level 3 emergency (the highest level), but this has not translated into urgently needed funding. In fact, there is a risk that this could be the first level 3 crisis in the world to run out of money.”

The world body says it will be forced to close dozens of health centers and to end food aid by this summer if current funding runs out.

In the Kurdish capital of Irbil in Iraq’s north, thousands of displaced families remain in camps and other makeshift housing.

The competition for resources and foreign aid has led to some finger-pointing among the various camps, which are often divided along ethnic and religious lines. Christians, who were among those most targeted by the Islamic State, are widely seen as having received outsize attention from the West.

At a Christian camp on the outskirts of Irbil that houses about 1,200 people, church leaders in robes, crucifixes and crimson skullcaps walk between rows of prefabricated housing complete with satellite TV and refrigerators.

But even in the more developed camps, the resources provided don’t always match the basic needs.

While they easily can watch the latest soap operas, residents say they struggle daily to find sources of clean water, and communal latrines are falling apart and covered with excrement.

‘It’s only getting worse’

Elsewhere in Irbil, a smaller community of displaced Yazidis — a religious minority also targeted by the jihadis — resides in a former elementary school.

Residents here say the monthly ration cards they receive from international aid organizations were reduced in the past few months from about $26 per person to about $16. That cut coincided with the end of $500 million in aid given by Saudi Arabia to the U.N. to help IDPs.

That is barely enough to cover basic food, and leaves nothing for other basic supplies like cleaning materials, said Hasna Haji, 60.

She and her family fled just two days before Islamic State militants rampaged through their community last August. They stayed in a local hotel for three days before their money ran out, forcing them into the camp at the school.

“It is only getting worse,” she said. “I worry about what will come.” Her daughter faces even worse conditions. “She lives in a tent camp,” Haji said. “It is much worse there. At least here we have decent living places.”

Nashwan Hamo, 34, echoed the plea for help. He said he and other adults in the camp have been unable to find work to supplement the aid.

“We need help but can’t find it,” Hamo said. “Everyone is looking for work, for a way out. But there is none.”

An enormous effort

Near Baghdad, thousands of Iraqis fleeing fighting in Anbar province have trouble finding refuge near the capital. Aid organizations and local groups established camps, but because of distrust of Sunnis coming from Islamic State-dominated areas, some government and militia officials made it difficult, if not impossible, for many displaced people to move into the area.

In response to the growing demand for resources, the Red Cross launched a campaign on May 11 to raise nearly $40 million in additional aid for displaced Iraqis.

An “enormous effort” is required to help the large number of people in need, the organization said in a statement.

“The needs are growing quite dramatically,” said Red Cross Director of Operations Dominik Stillhart, who visited the country in early May. “The extra money will enable us to provide aid for nearly 900,000 people. The provision of clean water will be a key priority as the hot summer begins. This extra funding will also be used to support health facilities, which have been severely damaged or destroyed during the fighting.”

Horror stories

As bad as things are in many of the camps, their residents face constant reminders of the horrors they would face if they returned home.

Hiriya Yousef, 51, fled Mosul just ahead of Islamic State forces last year, only to be caught a few days later along with two dozen other Christians. She was threatened with execution if she didn’t convert to Islam, she said, and she watched at least three others beheaded by the militants.

Still, Yousef and her husband were among the lucky ones who managed to escape after 10 days of imprisonment.

Ghastly stories make their way to the Yazidi camp, where many still have relatives who were trapped in jihadi territory. Islamic State fighters have boasted of taking hundreds of Yazidi women and girls as sex slaves.

“One 9-year-old girl escaped, but she was pregnant and vows to kill herself,” Haji said, her eyes filling with tears behind thick glasses. “Another girl was repeatedly raped, so she cut herself to try to kill herself. But before she died, the fighters stripped her naked, tied her in front of the other girls, and then set dogs on her.”

In the face of such horrors, Haji said, she tries to hold on to the good memories.

“This is the time of year when we would usually be having celebrations with dancing and a lot of food,” she said. “I miss that. I miss it so much.”

Twitter: @joshjonsmith

Wael Edwar, a refugee from fighting in his hometown of Mosul, Iraq, watches television in his temporary housing at a camp in Irbil. Though they live in safety, many residents can't find work and struggle to provide food for their families on aid alone.

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