Special forces to enter “third phase” in fight to liberate the central city from ISIL, as 50,000 people remain trapped.
Amiriyat al-Fallujah – As the Iraqi military and allied Shia militias continue their campaign to regain control over Fallujah, a small number of families have managed to escape the besieged city.
Located 50km west of Baghdad in Anbar province, Fallujah was among the first to fall to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in January 2014. For nearly 18 months now, Iraqi forces have kept Fallujah under siege.
Most of the families who succeeded in fleeing lived in the al-Hessie area, on Fallujah’s southern outskirts, about 10km from the city centre.
Although Iraqi forces regained control of al-Hessie a few days ago, the area is not yet fully secured. ISIL fighters still manage to attack it, forcing families to leave their houses in fear of it falling back under ISIL control.
Al Jazeera spoke with some Fallujah residents who managed to flee the city in the past week.
| Safia Jasim Saoud: “Our biggest fear was to be caught by ISIL fighters”
“The route is never easy nor safe, but many families like us chose to take the journey in the hope of reaching a safe place,” said Safia Jasim Saoud (Um Ahmad), 57, a Fallujah resident who escaped the city with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren on May 28.
“Many of us lost sons and husbands. We lost our dignity. Food was scarce: We ate dried dates and tried to bake bread with date seeds. It was too much to endure.”
They left the city after Saoud’s son-in-law advised them to flee owing to the Iraqi army’s assault. “Our biggest fear was to be caught by ISIL fighters. They have no mercy; they will execute anyone whom they catch or even suspect of trying to flee,” she said.
The 10km journey to the Amiriyat al-Fallujah camp goes through an open, exposed area where there is no place to hide. Those escaping the city cannot afford to stop until they arrive at an Iraqi army checkpoint.
Upon arrival at the camp, her son-in-law was immediately detained by the Iraqi army. “They took him, and they told us it was standard procedure to make sure that he had nothing to do with ISIL. But it has been three days now and he is not back yet,” she said.
Saoud said that under ISIL rule “our husbands and fathers were pushed to discipline us. Husbands would be forced to hit their wives for not wearing the niqab properly. If our men did not obey the orders of ISIL, they would face punishment.”
When the attack on Fallujah began, ISIL tried to move all civilians from al-Hessie into the city, but many families refused to leave. They believed ISIL was trying to keep them from fleeing to later use them as human shields. ISIL responded by executing some of the area’s residents to scare the rest into moving, but many families would still not leave.
| Hussein Abdo Nassief: “ISIL forced us to witness beheadings”
“ISIL forced us to witness beheadings. We have seen them throw people from the tops of buildings. We have walked through streets where corpses are left to rot and stray dogs would feed on them,” said Hussein Abdo Nassief (Abu Ammar), 60, who used to live in Fallujah.
He added that ISIL fighters set up large screens in Fallujah’s neighbourhoods to broadcast the executions.
“ISIL made sure to spread terror among the civilians. If you didn’t attend the public executions, then they made sure to show them on screens. They would even copy them on compact discs and deliver them to every house in the city.
| Mohammad Abbas Jassam: “Life in Fallujah was horrific”
| Thuraya Aboud Zaidan: “We barely had anything to eat”
“We lived under inhuman conditions. We barely had anything to eat. We had to eat grass and dried dates – this is all that we had, and we called it food,” says Thuraya Aboud Zaidan (Um Iman), 54, whose family was among those who succeeded in reaching Amiriyat al-Fallujah camp.
“Supplies were very rare, and as the siege was fully imposed on Fallujah, it became impossible to get any kind of food supplies,” she added.
Although many city residents had been losing their hopes of survival, the start of the attack on Fallujah gave some families the courage to leave.
“We were barely alive anyway, and we thought it did not matter any more. We just had to leave at any risk,” said Um Iman.