Displaced Iraqis left to struggle alone in mud ponds
BAGHDAD - Flash floods that battered Iraq left thousands of displaced people struggling to survive in mud ponds and water pools at the start of what is possibly another harsh winter, with little assistance by cash-strapped relief organisations and a government afflicted with rampant corruption.
The Iraqi Health Ministry announced November 6th that 60 people died in flooding that swept across Iraq. It did not explain if displaced Iraqis were among the victims but noted that most of the victims had been electrocuted.
Like much of the Middle East, Iraq was hit by torrential rain over several days in late October and early November, causing major flooding in Baghdad and other areas in northern and southern Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi declared a state of emergency in areas overwhelmed by rain. He also mobilised rescue squads to assist the population.
“We’re drowned in mud, not floods,” shouted Omer Mahmoud, a displaced Iraqi who lives in a run-down, ground-floor apartment in the northern Kurdish city of Kirkuk. He was referring to mud swept by the torrential rain that submerged homes and shops in the city’s lower areas.
“My brother and his family, who live in al-Amal camp in Baghdad, lost their tent and belongings. They lost everything,” Mahmoud said. He said his brother’s tent was blown away and family members were stranded in the rain until they were evacuated to a nearby mosque.
Mosques, schools and Iraqi families hosted the displaced or gave them food, blankets and other supplies. The displaced are generally cared for by the United Nations and local and foreign relief agencies.
Officially known as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the number of the displaced Iraqis is estimated at 3.1 million, nearly 10% of the country’s population. There are also thousands of refugees who fled war in Syria and ended up in Iraq.
The displaced, who are of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, fled violence-stricken areas to more secure cities, such as Baghdad. Many were trying to escape the rule of Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
They ended up in four makeshift tented camps scattered around Baghdad. Some, however, rented apartments in the capital and other cities.
Many tents in the Baghdad camps were blown away by strong winds, leaving the displaced exposed to rain. Muddy ponds dotted the settlements, where children walked barefoot and played in mud up to their knees.
The rain caused heavy damage to private and public buildings as well as to street infrastructure. Damage was estimated in the millions of dollars, Iraq’s state television said.
Many streets, houses and shops were flooded with a combination of rainwater and sewage. On social media, however, disgruntled Iraqis — who had taken to the streets in the summer to demand improved infrastructure and better state services, including an end to frequent power cuts — criticised the government for what they called its mishandling of the latest crisis.
Frustration even spread to relief workers.
Ahmed Agha, head of the Iraqi Ghawth (“relief”), a non-governmental organisation made up of young Iraqis, said life in Amal Camp, Arabic for “hope”, “is so miserable that the name of the camp doesn’t apply to the situation there”.
“There’s no hope or anything to look forward to,” Agha said. “The displaced people are really living in a total disaster in all the four camps in Iraq.”
Agha said Iraqi NGOs began winter preparations in mid-October and pressed ahead when the Iraqi Meteorology Board announced that heavy rains were in the offing. He said NGOs contacted government offices for help but received negative feedback.
“We asked the authorities to shelter the displaced in some old buildings in the marketplace but the authorities refused,” Agha said , adding that his group “also contacted Sunni Muslim endowments to help shelter some of the displaced” but nothing has yet been done.
“The displaced are in poor conditions,” he said. “They lost everything. They lost their tents, food, children’s milk, blankets, clothes and medicine.”
Agha said NGOs hoped the displaced in all four camps in Baghdad would get their plastic tents exchanged for prefabricated units ahead of winter. He said the Highest Committee of Relief, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, was established with $200 million but was quickly dissolved after Mutlaq was accused of corruption.
“Nothing happened since. It was all words with no deeds. All the activities, including raising funds for the IDPs, were put on hold,” he said.
Iraqi parliament Speaker Salim Jabouri said he had asked clerics to issue religious edicts allowing the IDPs to be relocated to mosques and other places of worship.
Ahmed Ali, another displaced Iraqi, said when he was a farmer in Saqlawiyah, 6 kilometres north-east of Fallujah, “I used to pray for rain for my crops.
“But this rain damaged what we have. It damaged our tents. I do not understand how the government did not prepare itself for this winter, especially that it knew well our situation and the similar hardships we went through the last winter.”