As Iraqi troops move 60 kilometers west of Baghdad to wrest control of Fallujah from Islamic State, it is clear that people still living there are in dire straits, says UNHCR Chief for Iraq Bruno Geddo.
Bruno Geddo: The situation in Fallujah is truly frightening. First of all, these people were feeling besieged inside the city. And they told us they lived in terror and in panic because the city was being bombed; there were air strikes and rocket fire. And then, if they summon the courage to flee and are caught by the militant Islamic State (IS) group they are immediately executed. Those who managed to get to the corridors where they could be extracted by Iraqi security forces by the time they reached the camps they were deeply, deeply traumatized. That is the psychological side of the story.
DW: Are there any food and medical supplies?
Bruno: That is the other side of the story: The physical side is that they are in very bad shape because from what we understand since the siege in December last year, prices have soared: One kilo of rice now costs 85 dollars. One bag with 50 kilos of flour costs one million Iraqi dinar - about $700. So it is completely unaffordable. There is no rice, no oil, no groceries in general. We have received reports that women are scavenging the trash. And sometimes all the people have to eat is joghurt and some dates, which are often no longer in very good condition. So this has led to a situation of despair, so we have people who committed suicide because they could no longer provide for their families. We heard of a mother with two children who drowned themselves in the Tigris River because they could not find a way to survive.
What can you tell us about the situation of the children?
They are very, very traumatized. They see that their parents are in panic and by the bombing and by this deep seated fear. Children are more deeply affected than adults.
How many are still living in Fallujah and what do you think would happen if the Iraqi forces could really get into the city?
Originally, we had an estimated 60,000 people living in Fallujah when the siege started. I would say about 11,000 have managed to escape so far. We estimate another 40,000 to 50,000 people are still living there.
There has been quite a mature dialogue with Iraqi authorities and the Iraqi security forces to come up with clear rules of engagement in accordance with international humanitarian law. They indicated a route for people to flee, an escape route. They also dropped leaflets to warn residents that the invasion is imminent and they told those who cannot leave to put up white flags. And we have testimony of people who fled and managed to get out safely this way.
Of course, depending on how fierce the resistance from ISIS is - and we know they use people as human shields - there could be a major bloodbath, but so far this has not happened. But my personal impression is that the Iraqi security forces are doing their best to abide by international humanitarian law.
How do you get information on the situation on the ground?
Internet and telecommunication has been closed down. NGOs have informants on the ground, but as you can imagine this information is sketchy and difficult to confirm. The primary source of information is people who manage to escape and reach our camps.
They take a terrible risk in trying to escape. They have to walk thirty kilometers to safety. Many flee over night and if they are caught they face certain death. So those who manage to escape are incredulous that they managed to do so and very, very grateful.
Bruno Geddo is the UNHCR representative in Iraq. The UN operates a refugee camp about 30 kilometers outside Fallujah in an area not controlled by Islamic State.
This interview was conducted by Nastassja Shtrauchler.