Falluja starves under crippling army siege, ISIS violence

Sunday 15/05/2016
Displaced Iraqis, who fled regions controlled by ISIS near Falluja, carrying their belongings

BAGHDAD - Two months ago, Baghdad woke up to horrifying so­cial media images of chil­dren and the elderly with skeleton-like figures beg­ging for food, not in some far-away famine but on the Iraqi capital’s doorstep in Islamic State-held Fal­luja.

Falluja has been under a crip­pling siege imposed by Iraq’s army, leaving Islamic State (ISIS) fight­ers holed up inside the city, 60km south-west of Baghdad.

“No food, no childhood,” read a banner waved by Iraqi children in Falluja, who said they had not had a hot meal in several weeks. Iraqis started collecting donations through various sites, which bore hashtags such as #Falluja, #Iraq, are #starving under #siege, #save Fal­luja and #UN.

Across the Euphrates river from Falluja in Khalidiya, residents packed lentils, rice, beans, sugar and other staples in small quanti­ties into plastic bottles or canisters and floated them over the water to desperate residents of the besieged city.

Falluja medical officials reported “hundreds” of cases of malnutrition but insisted the situation had not yet reached famine stage.

“It’s pretty bad but not dire,” said Dr Omar al-Wendawi, a physician at a Falluja hospital.

“But we are in urgent need of medical supplies and medicines for chronic diseases, such as blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol,” Wendawi said in a telephone in­terview. He said supplies had not arrived in the city since the army, backed by allied militias, imposed a crippling siege on Falluja five months ago.

Talib al-Hasnawi, head of Falluja city council, said more than 4,000 people had died and 6,000 others had been wounded in attacks on Falluja since ISIS took control of the city in January 2014. Children and elderly people had died of malnutri­tion, he said.

“While the US believes there are 400 ISIS jihadists in Falluja, the government estimates the number at 1,000,” Hasnawi said. “It’s not that large and the government can get to them if it introduced specific military plans.”

Falluja residents have com­plained that they cannot afford to pay for food and medicine even when they are available.

“All prices shot up and we have been jobless for at least two years,” said Abu Mohammed, a 43-year-old geologist. He said his wife feed their four children leafy greens she picks from their backyard.

He said a 100kg bag of flour costs nearly 2 million Iraqi dinars ($1,550), compared to about 51,600 dinars ($40) in the past. A 450- gram can of powdered baby milk has jumped from 3,870 dinars ($3) to 144,000 dinars ($112).

Sugar, tea and coffee are una­vailable at any price, except in ISIS households or the homes of Sunni tribesmen supporting the terror group, where supplies are in abun­dance, said resident Abu Moham­med, who declined to be identified further for fear of ISIS reprisal.

Alarmed by the deteriorating conditions inside Falluja, social workers and international rights organisations warned of the bleak situation.

New York-based Human Rights Watch called on warring parties to make sure that aid reaches the civilian population, which has not received aid for several months.

“The humanitarian picture in Falluja is bleak and getting bleaker,” Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.

“Greater international attention to the besieged towns and cities of the region is needed or the results for civilians could be calamitous,” he pointed out.

Falluja dates from Babylonian times and served as host for Jewish academics for several centuries. It is known for its minarets adorning its many mosques.

Today, Falluja has become in­creasingly considered one of the toughest challenges for Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, its army and allied pro-Iranian militias seeking to recapture the territory ISIS seized in 2014.

With a population estimated at 90,000, compared with more than 300,000 before ISIS took over, Fal­luja is regarded as a bastion for Sunni Muslim resentment towards the Shia-led Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Falluja also remains strongly linked to the Sunni insurgency that erupted after Saddam’s overthrow in the 2003 US-led invasion. It was one of the primary strongholds for the ISIS predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Even now, some Falluja tribes­men, clerics, theologians and schol­ars are fiery critics of their govern­ment. They have publicly supported ISIS as the defender of the rights of the oppressed Sunni minority in Iraq.

“These are valid reasons for the government to take its revenge back from Falluja by having it bleed more or die before it is liberated,” ob­served journalist Ahmed al-Ani.

“With the beefed up military presence outside Falluja, the city could’ve been recaptured a year ago,” Ani said.