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‘How can they talk about elections?’

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Iraqi doctor Salam Ismael attempted to reach Fallujah over Christmas to help thousands of refugees stranded by the US assault on their city. He found misery, hunger and growing anger
Issue 1933

‘How can they talk about elections?’Christmas eve, there is a cold wind, the temperatures in the desert dip below freezing. A group of us, all doctors, decide to try and reach Fallujah. There are stories of disease and hunger.

As we leave Baghdad we are stopped at three checkpoints manned by the US army and their allies in the Iraqi National Guard. They search us then let us get on our way.

Three miles north of Baghdad we reach the small town of Taji, we are stopped again, but now by the resistance.

Masked men brandishing assault rifles and rocket launchers ask us where we are going and examine our IDs.

We tell them we are doctors on a humanitarian mission trying to reach Fallujah. We would be stopped twice more by the resistance. Outside the cities it is they who control Iraq.

We drive along the side roads that crisscross the agricultural lands to avoid US troops. By midday we reach Saqlawia, a village a few miles north of Fallujah.

The area is dotted with refugee camps. I notice many children playing—most of them poorly dressed in spite of the cold weather (it was about 8C and it was a windy day).

The refugees make up some of the estimated 200,000 people displaced by the US assault on the city last November.

I meet a middle-aged man who introduced himself as Mohammad Al-Esawi, he has two children—an eight year old son and a five year old daughter. He is a construction worker from the poor Golan district of Fallujah. I ask him how long has he been waiting to return home.

“I fled on the first day of the siege,” he says. “I left the day the Americans announced that all men under the age of 45 were not allowed to leave the city. The Americans are wicked.

“They would only allow women and children to leave, and even then they only gave families one day to pack and leave.

“Three of my cousins and their families were trapped in the city, and I heard that one of my cousins and his wife were killed, but I cannot be sure.

“I left because, during the first American siege last March, we learned the meaning of death and terror. We suffered a lot. My son was wounded in the leg by a cluster bomb.

“So this time I decided to leave the city and not let my family face more horror. But if I was single I would have stayed.”

I ask him what he and his family managed to take with them. His eyes fill with tears.

“Only what we could carry, some clothes, some dishes and cooking pans, and a few blankets,” says Mohammad.

“What about your situation here?” I ask.

“There are about 300 families in this small camp,” he says. “Some of the families are guests of the families in the nearby village of Saqlawia.

“But there is not enough room for everyone there, so when the houses filled the rest of us lived in the desert for a while until we got tents from aid organisations.

“We are suffering a chronic shortage of medication and food. And it is harder because it is winter. You see that we are in the open desert in this winter rain and wind.

“It is very cold here, especially at night when the temperature drops to below zero. We do not have enough heaters, and those who have heaters find it difficult to get fuel.

“Many of the children are complaining of respiratory infections. Where is the medicine?

“There is another big problem. Instead of giving humanitarian aid, the Americans came to the camp and arrested the men. We do not know where they are, or when they will be released.”

I ask Mohammad’s wife if the Iraqi provisional government were helping the refugees.

She begins to shake with anger: “What government? The one that destroyed Fallujah, that drove us from our homes? They did not give us any money to repair our houses destroyed in the first siege. Who will rebuild our houses this time?”

She tells me that every morning she wakes up to the same problems. “Every day I ask: ‘How will I feed my family today?’ We have a small amount of rice and some flour. And without help from our relatives, the Iraqi people here and humanitarian organisations we would surely have died. My husband is not working now so from where can we get money?

“When there is food there is not enough water. Sometimes we have to wash the dishes with mud. And I have to think about the heating and fuel—most of the time we have to collect the wood for heating.

“Usually all we have are blankets. I feel pain whenever I hear my child cough.”

“What did we do to deserve this?” she cries. “Why are they doing this to us. I lost two sisters and a brother in the siege last March.”

“I want to say that this situation has left us with more hatred for the occupation,” Mohammad interrupts. “Where is the justice? Saddam killed a lot of people and Bush killed more, so both have to be punished.”

I ask him one last question: “What do you think about elections planned for January?”

“What elections? Tell me how we can return home, tell me about medication for my children, tell me about food, tell me about heating fuel, tell me about water! Do not ask me about elections. Prime minister Iyad Allawi destroyed our homes and now he wants elections. I will never participate in these elections.”


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