Letter from Baghdad: Um Ahmed’s ‘day from hell’
Baghdad - The dawn call to prayer was quickly followed by the sound of explosions and screaming as forces of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) began their attack on the western Iraqi desert city of Ramadi last month.
“The militants are coming,” people shouted. “It was a day from hell,” recalled Um Ahmed, a 42-year-old widow. That day, April 20th, she and many others from the town, set out on the arduous 110-kilometre trek — much of it on foot — to Baghdad to get away from the extremists.
Like other conservative women of Bedouin tribal origin, she identified herself as the mother of her eldest son. She was demurely dressed as befits an observant Muslim woman in a headscarf and a long, loose black dress.
Um Ahmed is one of an estimated 2.7 million people — one in 10 Iraqis — who have been displaced in their country by fighting that has been going on since the US-led invasion of 2003.
This vast army of the displaced is constantly on the move in Iraq, from hotspots to less-troubled areas, fleeing jihadist violence or sectarian fighting between Sunnis and the more numerous Shia Muslims.
Anbar is Iraq’s largest province, encompassing most of the country’s western territory that borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Most of Anbar’s inhabitants are Sunnis but they fear ISIS. Although it too is Sunni, ISIS considers Muslims who do not follow its ultra-orthodox dogma apostates.
Clashes in western Iraq began December 30, 2013, when Iraqi security forces arrested a Sunni lawmaker from Anbar on charges of treason. ISIS moved into parts of the province in the summer of 2014 and seized much of the territory. By early this year, most of the province was under ISIS rule.
Speaking to The Arab Weekly after she arrived in Baghdad, Um Ahmed recalled the agony she and others had endured on their dangerous odyssey from Ramadi.
“At first we had to wait near my house for several hours because there was heavy fighting,” she recalled, her face reflecting the fear as the memories crowded in on her. “Jet planes whizzed through the skies and we kept hearing explosions from every direction.
“We were told that ISIS was coming and that Ramadi would fall into their hands,” she recalled in a quavering voice. Iraqi government forces are still fighting with ISIS militants for control of the city.
“I hopped into my neighbour’s pickup truck. There were more than 30 people crammed in it, children, men and women. We drove off and used back roads to get out through the western part of the town. There was a lot of burning and pillars of smoke in many places. It was very scary.”
They drove for 50 kilometres from Ramadi through Falluja, a city where a few years ago US Marines fought jihadist fighters in their biggest battles since Vietnam. Um Ahmed’s truck was stopped and searched at ten Iraqi Army roadblocks along the way.
“We were afraid they’d turn us back,” she recalled, “Where would we go?”
At last, after many hours, they arrived at the Bzabz bridge, a makeshift pontoon across the Euphrates river, about 65 kilometres west of Baghdad. The bridge marks the boundary between Anbar and the capital.
There, the real agony began.
“Security forces refused to let us cross the bridge and asked us to bring a sponsor to pick us up,” she said, confirming Iraqi media reports that indicated the Iraqi Army sought to ensure that no ISIS sleeper cells could sneak into Baghdad disguised as refugees.
Waiting under a scorching sun on the banks of Euphrates, Um Ahmed said she weaved her way through hundreds of bedraggled Iraqis towards the bridge. Many of the refugees were covered in mud from walking near the river as they inched their way to a precarious safety.
Um Ahmed said she saw crowds of bewildered and frightened elderly people and children sleeping near vehicles or on the banks of the river, where some washed or drank to quench their thirst. She said that some told her they had been stranded there for several days in the blistering sun.
“There were hundreds of people wherever you looked,” she said. “They were sleeping in the dirt. They had no blankets. Nothing.” she said. “We had no water and no food as we lugged our bags or waited in the heat. “By then, I was so tired and afraid that I felt I was going to faint,” she said, breaking into tears.
When night came, and the temperature dropped, Iraqi soldiers allowed a few dozen people whose sponsors had turned up to cross the bridge. Um Ahmed was among them. She said she walked for several hours until she reached Baghdad.
“My brother and sister were waiting for me,” she said. Her ordeal was over.
“I felt my soul came back to me. I only felt safe when I saw them standing there.”