IRAQ

A family’s flight – on foot – from Islamic State jihadists

In the past few weeks, thousands of people have fled Iraq’s central Ramadi region, where clashes continue between Iraqi security forces and fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group. Fearful that jihadists might infiltrate the stream of refugees, Iraqi authorities have imposed draconian restrictions on these civilians, most of whom are trying the reach Baghdad, the capital. Abou Abdallah, 50, and his family have just arrived at the end of this difficult journey.

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Thousands of civilian refugees wait to enter Baghdad, close the Bzibez bridge, the only access point to the Iraqi capital. Photo pusblished on Twitter (@MdUbaida).

In the past few weeks, thousands of people have fled Iraq’s central Ramadi region, where clashes continue between Iraqi security forces and fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group. Fearful that jihadists might infiltrate the stream of refugees, Iraqi authorities have imposed draconian restrictions on these civilians, most of whom are trying the reach Baghdad, the capital. Abou Abdallah, 50, and his family have just arrived at the end of this difficult journey.

More than 114,000 people have fled fighting around Ramadi, according to figures released by the United Nations. Among them, close to 54,000 refugees headed for Baghdad, 15,000 went to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, and 2,100 more travelled to the province of Babylon, according to the UN. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is concerned about the difficulties they face, including “dwindling resources, checkpoints, entry restrictions, and security procedures.”

Volunteers hand out food to refugees near Bzibez bridge. Photo posted on Twitter (@a1li8638).

"I walked dozens of kilometres even though I have had a bullet lodged in my spine since 2006"

Abou Abdallah, 50, is a refugee originally from a village close to Ramadi.

I come from a village called Soufia, located about five kilometres from the city of Ramadi. My family and I fled two days after the Islamic State organisation first reached the region. We had heard that the jihadists would go from door to door asking for each family to offer up one fighter to join their ranks. I have two grown sons and the thought of them having to fight with IS sent me into a complete panic.

I left home at dawn on April 14 with my wife, my two sons, their wives and my grandchildren. There were 13 of us in total. We took nothing with us because we don’t have a car. We walked all day alongside hundreds of other families who, like us, didn’t have any other method of transport.

I was in a lot of pain during this journey because I have an old war wound: I have had a bullet lodged in my spine since 2006, when I was in the military, and I can’t walk without a cane.

After we had walked 25 kilometres, a man who was fleeing with his family in a lorry agreed to help us. We climbed into the back and he drove us all the way to Amiriyah Fallujah, which is around 40 kilometres west of Baghdad. After we reached this city, all the refugees left their vehicles and continued on foot. They were afraid of the army and the al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias, who were participating in the Iraqi military offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group, that had set up several roadblocks. The security forces are very suspicious of cars because they are worried they could be carrying explosives. We walked another 10 kilometres before taking a taxi to Baghdad.

Hundreds of refugees cross the Bzibez bridge to Baghdad. Photo published on Twitter (@MdUbaida).

"Without someone willing to vouch for us, we couldn’t enter Baghdad”

When we arrived at the Bzibez bridge, the soldiers who guard this sole point of access to the capital told us that without someone who could vouch for us and act as our guarantor, we would not be able to enter Baghdad. That night, we slept outside on the ground, without any blankets. Because I don’t know anyone who lives in Baghdad, I kept stopping residents of the capital who were passing to ask for help. Finally, after two days, someone finally agreed to vouch for us. We then returned to the checkpoint and showed them our documents. Our guarantor had to give the soldiers his telephone number.

We didn’t stay long in Baghdad, because it is so expensive. We only stayed two nights in the capital before travelling to Diwaniyah, 180 kilometres from Baghdad. Once again, we needed a guarantor in order to enter that city. Luckily, I have a friend who lives there, which made it much easier than in Baghdad.

I’ve been renting an apartment here for 170 dollars [156 euros] a month. It isn’t furnished — there isn’t even a refrigerator. Thankfully, a neighbour helped me out by giving me a gas cylinder so we could cook food. For now, the government has taken no measures to care for refugees. We won’t be able to last much longer like this without government assistance.

Because we left Soufia in such a panic, we forgot the jewellery and money that we had in the house. My brother, who left the village three days after we did, told us that it has since been burned. I lost everything… but I am also very grateful, because my family is alive and well.

Sunni religious dignitaries expressed ire over the guarantor requirement for refugees, which pushed the Iraqi parliament to vote to end to this measure on April 18.

However, Iraqi Vice President Usama al-Nujayfi said several days later that this change of procedure was not being respected on the ground.