A humanitarian crisis is about to hit the Iraqi city of Fallujah following an exodus of civilians from city, aid workers have warned.
Thousands of civilians fled Fallujah, just 50 kilometres west of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, after government forces retook much of the city from the DAESH terrorist group. The US-backed Iraqi forces thrust into central Fallujah after making major advances in recent days.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over DAESH on Friday after troops reached the city centre, following a four-week US-backed assault. But shooting, suicide bombings and mortar attacks still continue.
Government-run camps were struggling on Sunday to shelter people fleeing Fallujah.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said that up to 84,000 people had been forced to flee their homes since the start of the government offensive against DEASH nearly a month ago.
Camps are already overflowing with people who marched several kilometres past DAESH snipers and minefields in sizzling heat, struggling even to find shade.
"People have run and walked for days. They left Fallujah with nothing," said Lise Grande, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. "They have nothing and they need everything."
The exodus, which is likely to be many times larger if an assault on DAESH’s northern stronghold Mosul goes ahead as planned later this year, has caught the government and humanitarian groups off guard.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in May that the army would prioritise Fallujah, the first Iraqi city seized by the militants in early 2014.
On Saturday he ordered new measures, which will see 10 new refugee camps erected, to help the displaced people.
However, the government does not even have a count of refugees, , many of whom are stranded out in the open or packed among several families in overcrowded tents.
An Iraqi aid worker employed by the government at a camp in Amriyat al-Fallujah said that the resources were inadequate to deal with the scope of the crisis.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said that one site is hosting around 1,800 people and has only one latrine.
"We implore the Iraqi government to take charge of this humanitarian disaster unfolding on our watch," the aid group's country director Nasr Muflahi said.
Iraq's cash-strapped government has struggled to meet the basic needs of more than 3.4 million people across Iraq who have been displaced by the conflict. The government made appeals for funding from international organisations and relies heavily on local religious networks. Yet unlike other battles, where many civilians sought refuge in nearby cities or the capital, people fleeing Fallujah have been barred from entering Baghdad, and aid officials note a lack of community mobilisation.
A bastion of insurgency against US forces following the 2003 invasion, Fallujah was seen as a launchpad for bombings in Baghdad. Known for its strategic location west of the Tigris River and its airfield, Iraqi forces hope that regaining control over the city will help launch a major push to retake Mosul.
The participation of Shi'ite militias in the battle alongside the army, however, has raised fears of sectarian killings.
The authorities have already made arrests related to allegations that Shi’ite militiamen executed dozens of fleeing Sunnis.
Government forces are screening men to prevent DAESH militants from disguising themselves as civilians to slip out of Fallujah. Thousands have been freed and scores referred to the courts, but many others remain unaccounted for.
At a camp in Amiriyat Fallujah on Thursday, Fatima Khalifa said she had not heard from her husband and their 19-year-old son since they were taken from a nearby town two weeks earlier.
"We don't know where they are or where they were taken," she said. "We don't want rice or cooking oil, we just want our men."