The world cannot turn its back on Iraq
BAGHDAD - It is happening again. Tens of thousands of Iraqis are being uprooted from their homes because of the conflict gripping their country. In 2014, biblical-like scenes of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar caught the world’s attention. Now, thousands are being driven out by militants out of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi.
Most families escaping violence walk for miles under the scorching sun in temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius. Some are so thirsty they drink from the muddy Euphrates river despite the health risks.
The lives of Iraqis have become defined by one wave of displacement after another. In all my years in Iraq, I have never seen the problem attain its current proportion. Now, nearly 3 million people across the country have been forced out of their homes to escape fighting; their lives disrupted, their children out of school, their future uncertain. They are living in UN camps, with relatives or within host communities, in mosques, churches or public buildings.
“Time has stopped for us,” Salwa Abbas, an Iraqi mother of two, told me at one of the camps in Erbil, in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, where more than 1 million displaced people have sought shelter. Abbas came with her husband and children from Ramadi, leaving their house and belongings. They left when the city fell to militants but Salwa said the situation in Ramadi was already unbearable as food prices doubled and items such as meat, dairy and fresh fruit were hard to come by. Even before the militants took Ramadi, they were in Anbar’s surrounding area, cutting off supply routes and causing significant shortages in the city’s food supply.
At the World Food Programme (WFP), the food assistance branch of the United Nations and the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger, we play a central role in feeding hungry people who have been uprooted and lack the means to obtain their own food.
Many of them depend almost entirely on humanitarian assistance to survive. We provide food in the emergency phase, as in the case of Ramadi where we reached more than 200,000 people affected by the crisis with three-day food packages to help them along the way. We also provide long-term assistance in the form of monthly food rations delivered to vulnerable people who have been displaced for some time and live in either camps or in public shelters and have the means to cook their food.
Today, WFP is able to provide food assistance to 1.8 million (including those in Anbar) of the displaced and conflict-affected people across the country’s 18 governorates. More importantly, WFP seeks to provide Iraqi civilians with a sense of control in their otherwise chaotic lives.
This is not the first time people from Anbar have been displaced. In January 2014, around half a million people fled the province when militant groups attacked it. They have moved into camps in the southern cities of Babil and Karbala or have gone north to Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. Internally displaced people from Anbar account for 25% of those displaced within the entire country.
Mohammed Hamdoun, 45, and his family of four fled Ramadi and walked for five days to reach Baghdad. His wife and older son carried some belongings while Hamdoun held his two younger children so they would not be crushed by the tens of thousands of people fleeing at the same time. The journey was long and difficult but Hamdoun and his wife Janat were determined to make it to safety for their children.
Now in Abu Ghraib camp in Baghdad, Hamdoun, who has to share his tent with another family of five, considers himself lucky to have been able to enter the city. Many others remain stranded outside Baghdad waiting for security clearance from Iraqi authorities.
With the safety of his family secured, Hamdoun is eagerly looking for work to support his family. That is what amazes me about many Iraqis I met. He refused to give into despair. He is moving forward trying to make the best out of a very unfortunate situation.
This year has proven to be another difficult year for the Iraqi people. Humanitarian needs continue to increase beyond the resources available as the conflict continues unabated. Any disruption to humanitarian aid runs the risk of making things worse. And WFP is not coming out of this unscathed; we were forced to reduce our food rations and the value of food vouchers that these victims rely on to survive as funding dwindles.
At the moment, WFP in Iraq needs $108 million from now until October to continue its operations in the country. Its biggest donor last year was Saudi Arabia which contributed $150 million, a generous amount that allowed us to meet our target of reaching 1.8 million people every month, until recently.
We continue to urge the international community to step up and support our operation in Iraq to continue to provide essential assistance to people who are in desperate need for our help. Without this help, more and more Iraqis will go hungry.
Listening to stories of survival and the terrors families faced, it is striking how hopeful Iraqis can be despite the conflict that has come to shatter their lives. Having survived sanctions and wars over the past decade, and now the threat of extremist groups, Iraqis still dream of returning home to rebuild their future.
But the worst part of their plight is the uncertainty of their future. “We do not know for how long we will be here,” Salwa told me. My hope is that we can continue to support her and other Iraqis until their plight is over.