Fierce battles continue in Iraq's Anbar province. More people flock to the Bzebiz bridge over the Euphrates, fleeing IS. In the refugee camps, drinking water is dwindling. DW's Birgit Svensson reports from Baghdad.
Anyone who wants to travel from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to Ramadi must make a detour south because the caliphate of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) begins only a few kilometers west of the Iraqi capital. And the road to Ramadi, the city on the Euphrates River, is impassable for people who do not want to fall into the clutches of the jihadists.
Mechanical engineer Nazahr Ghazi got up early in the mroning. "If you do not get out of Baghdad on time, you are stuck in endless traffic," says the Iraqi, who has spent the past five years working for a German NGO based in Baghdad and taking care of his compatriots in Anbar province.
Ghazi is on the way to Bzebiz Bridge, the now world-famous Euphrates crossing where thousands of refugees from Ramadi were stranded last year when IS seized the provincial capital.
Return to Ramadi
Now, two months after the liberation of Ramadi, the first inhabitants are returning to their homes. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that since the beginning of March, 71,000 of the former 280,000 inhabitants have returned to the Euphrates. But the situation near the Bzebiz Bridge has not improved; on the contrary, the next movement of refugees from the province has already begun.
Most of the 3.4 million internally displaced people in the country come from this province (43 percent). In March alone, 50,000 people left their homes here. IOM reports that 30,000 have come from the city of Heet, west of Ramadi, just in the past few days. The reason for the new wave of refugees is the intense fighting in Anbar between government forces and IS.
IS fighters in Iraq are facing major Iraqi army offensives, various militia groups and the international anti-terror coalition in two places: in Anbar province around Ramadi and in Salah ad Din province near Samarra and Tikrit. The Bzebiz Bridge plays an important role because of its strategic location. The temporary floating structure is on the border between the provinces of Anbar and Baghdad. A second, more stable bridge is already under construction.
Power over life and death
Only people who have a pass for the capital or those who can provide proof of a sponsor are allowed to cross. Nazahr Ghazi is only allowed to cross when he has shown his staff ID for the "Rebuild Iraq Recruitment Program" (RIRP). His organization, which receives financial backing from the German government, provides drinking water to refugees on the other side of Bzebiz Bridge.
The UN is concerned about the situation in Anbar. "Thousands of people who were trapped in the city of Heet for months are now trying to get to reach safety," says Lise Grande, a UN coordinator for humanitarian aid. "We do not yet have full access to the people and fear for their safety." Many of the families are now seeking protection in the already overcrowded camps and makeshift settlements near the bridge, and in the cities of Amiriyah Fallujah and Habbaniyah.
Mechanical Engineer Ghazi Nazahr comes from Heet. The 27-year-old Iraqi's ancestral family home had been converted into IS headquarters. He just found out that the house has been vacated. But reports are often contradictory and the situation in the fought-over region is still unclear.
On the other side of the bridge you can see the "White Camp" from afar. "It was the first refugee camp with white tents near the Bzebiz Bridge," Ghazi Nazhar explained. A year ago, the first refugees from Ramadi arrived, now 1,500 people live here.
Ghazi and RIRP built the camp. Within six months, they installed ten drinking water treatment facilities - three in Habbaniyah, six in the Ameriat al-Fallujah area, and one in the White Camp at the Bzebiz Bridge. They drilled wells, built well houses and installed the equipment.
Clean drinking water, little food
"Each facility is currently operating at full capacity," says Nazahr Ghazi. Every day, 20,500 liters of drinking water are dispensed to the population. The German government donates 500,000 euros ($563,270) to support the provision of drinking water. Originally, each refugee was to be given 20 liters of water per day. "But that is not working out," Ghazi points out, "because more and more people are coming."
People who are supplied with water appreciate it. "We are so grateful for the clean drinking water," says a woman who takes her plastic bucket and lines up in front of a huge water tank. "At first, trucks brought the water," recount the other people in the line, "which was often dirty and contaminated" - people got diarrhea.
The situation in the camp remains critical. "If only everything were as good as the water," one young man laments at the Bzebiz Bridge and criticizes the rest of the supplies and care in the camp. Food rations are apparently too sparse and unequally distributed; the tents too small for so many people. He is not considering a return to Ramadi. "The battle against "IS" is far from over," he says, adding, "I do not want to flee again."