Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kirkuk. Rudaw photo
KIRKUK, Kurdistan Region — More than 600,000 displaced Iraqis are still living in dire conditions in poorly equipped camps across Kirkuk province as shortage of heating fuel and bread forced them to face a brutal winter in the cold.
“There is no heating kerosene to buy even if you have money which we really don’t,” said Hamida Mohsin who has spent the entire cold season in a refugee camp outside Kirkuk city.
“Our only request is to be given our ration of kerosene so that we can keep our tents warm for the reminder of the winter,” she said, as she sparingly used her last 10-liter barrel of heating kerosene.
Though many internally displaced families have returned to their newly liberated homes in central and northern regions of the country, over 1.5 million refugees are still in camps or rented houses across Iraq, the majority of them in Kurdish controlled territories.
According to Iraq’s Immigration Minister Darbaz Muhammad, nearly 1,650,000 internally displaced people (IDP) have so far returned to their liberated areas in Iraq since mid-2016, which is more than half the number of people forced from their homes by the ISIS war.
“My monthly flour ration is about 15 kilos and I have seven children,” said Salah Fatih, adding that both bread and heating fuel are desperately needed to survive the camps.
About 600,000 IDPs are in Kirkuk, according to Kurdistan Regional Government statistics from November 2016.
“No one really owns 5 kilos of flour here and we don’t have money to buy kerosene either,” he told Rudaw.
Provincial authorities in Kirkuk say their 30,000 barrels of refined oil per day do not correspond to the staggering demand as most households rely on kerosene to keep their homes warm in the cold seasons of the year.
“We have only one refinery in Kirkuk. It can refine 30,000 barrels a day and that includes kerosene but also gasoline and other fuels that are needed in the province. We do not even have enough fuel to meet the demand of the ordinary residents,” said Fuad Kwekha Hussein, a member of the oil and gas committee in Kirkuk.
Kirkuk province holds nearly 10 percent of Iraq’s estimated 140 billion barrels of oil, according to government and international estimates.
People volunteer their time in Mosul. Photo: Faza'a FB
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Often, they are the first to reach liberated areas in Mosul with water and food, and this way Faza’a has in the past three months earned quite a reputation in the city.
“We target the areas that nobody can reach. That is why Faza’a is so well known and popular in Mosul,” said Mustafa Khateeb, one of the initiators of this movement of young volunteers.
The 21-year-old fled from Iraq’s second city when the Islamic group ISIS took it over in June 2014, and soon after was helping his townsfolk in the camps with food, water and blankets.
But the real work started when the battle for Mosul began last October, he says. “Young men of Mosul felt they had to do something for their city. It started with three of us, and we decided to help IDPs in camps, liberated villages and neighbourhoods.”
During their first campaign in liberated areas on the Eastbank, Faza’a (Arabic for people who shoulder missions which are not quite their responsibilities) brought food, milk, water and simple medicine like aspirin.
Now Faza’a has five hundred registered members, and another thousand that did not register their names, and works from Erbil in coordination with Peshmerga troops and the Iraqi anti-terror brigade.
Their activities have grown too, and now different teams specialize in aid, or even in digging wells, or supply blankets, winter clothes, cookers and kitchen equipment in the camps.
On their Facebook page, videos show youths distributing drinking water and food packages to thankful Moslawi civilians.
“We have two kinds of volunteers: outside and inside Mosul. Locals help organizing, and decide how to distribute,” Khateeb explained. “Our cars are now recognized and greeted everywhere.”
Inside the city, the group reached people who had nothing, “only leaves of the trees, no water, no food. Any time we get demands for aid, we will bring it in 24 hours,” Khateeb said.
Even during military operations, no aid workers or volunteers were let in, Faza’a was able to manage.
“That is because of our good relations with the army, and because we coordinate with the provincial council,” said Khateeb, “We managed to get the approval of the anti-terror brigade, on condition that it was at our own risk.”
In the second phase of the battle, for West Mosul, they will do the same.
“They will let us get into areas that are secured,” Khateeb said, “also sometimes in the East side we entered at the same time as the army.”
He admits that it has been dangerous, because ISIS, or Daesh, as it is called locally.
“The first time we got in, we were targeted by snipers and shelling by Daesh,” Khateeb said. “They managed to delay us, but we reached our destination.”
Other attacks lead to casualties. “We lost four young people of our local teams, and seventeen got wounded. After that attack, we returned there three times, to challenge Daesh and to show that we really help. We are willing to sacrifice our lives for it.”
The danger did not stop volunteers from coming forward at all: “The number increased after we were targeted for the first time.” Even women and girls are part of the teams, “but we do not let them go to dangerous places.”
Faza’a does not have offices, but gets the use of a space when they need it. That’s typical for how the group works: by bringing demands and requests together.
The same way they help Moslawi IDPs in Erbil and Duhok who need medical aid: they find Moslawi medical doctors and specialists who volunteer, and private hospitals that offer space.
Money for their work comes from Moslawis who are outside the city, some of them rich, some just donate 15,000 dinars (just over 10 dollars) or supply the group with second hand clothes.
“Our role is to be between those with money, and those who need help,” Khateeb said.
Medical services have been an important part of their work, Khateeb said, in a city where most of those services have been destroyed.
“We managed to open a centre for blood donations on the left bank, cleaned it and made it ready, with some volunteer doctors,” he said. “We made a clinic in the north liberated sector, supplied it with medicine to deal with non-urgent cases.”
He stressed that Faza’a had managed this all on its own, “no international organisations helped us, only volunteers and donations.”
The group now has a lot of followers, who do not directly work with the initiators, Khateeb explained.
“We stimulate others to take initiatives, as there is a big pressure on us,” he said. “Like the teams cleaning up the city, we support them but they work alone.”
He said that many more young people want to volunteer, “but we have limited resources as the donations are getting less. Any funder has a limit, they are mostly IDPs themselves.”
Until recently the people behind Faza’a were not known.
“From the first day, we did not let any volunteer post photos of the distribution, to prevent opportunists from using Faza’a,” Khateeb said.
For that reason, Faza’a has no political affiliations.
“We will not be abused by anyone who wants attention for himself,” Khateeb said.
Pregnant Syrian refugees wait for consultations at a maternal health clinic run by Doctors Without Borders at a refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region. Photo: UNHCR
Erbil, , Kurdistan Region – Erbil health authorities have warned of a shortage of anesthesia in the city's maternity hospitals as the numbers of displaced people and refugees in the region have placed extra demand on the health care facilities.
Dr. Saman Barzinji, head of Erbil General Health, said on Sunday that anesthesia medicines are in short supply and had to reduce the numbers of operations being conducted across maternity hospitals in the city.
Barzinji said that they have repeatedly called on "international organizations to seriously assist" them, but what they receive does not meet the increased needs.
"If it goes on this way, we will be obliged to halt the list of surgeries in the biggest hospital of Erbil," he warned, referring to the Erbil Maternity Hospital.
Taking part in Rudaw TV’s Hotline program on Sunday, Dr. Mahabad Sheikhani said, "Eighty percent of patients admitted to Erbil maternity hospitals are refugees from Mosul."
Many physicians have raised the alarm, saying that if this shortage is not met urgently, the lives of many mothers and babies would be at stake in the coming days.
Dr. Khalis Qadir, spokesperson for the Health Ministry, put the blame on international organizations who, he said, "have failed to respond to their needs."
Asked whether or not the Iraqi government has assisted them, Qadir replied, "They are having the same problem as we are."
An estimated 1.8 million refugees from Syria and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from other parts of Iraq have taken shelter in the Kurdistan Region since 2014.
Health officials in Erbil have voiced their concerns several times over deteriorating situations in the city's hospitals as they are overwhelmed by thousands of wounded civilian and soldiers brought from Mosul in the ongoing offensive to retake the city from ISIS.
During a visit to Erbil in early December, Hazim Jumaili, Iraq's deputy health minister, admitted that both the Iraqi government and the KRG were dealing with a severe humanitarian crisis.
Medical facilities in liberated east Mosul were severely damaged in the fighting. Salam Hospital, formerly a top health centre in Mosul, is now “destroyed,” Ayad Ibrahim, a staff worker at the hospital, told Rudaw last week. Smaller medical centres have been opened but are lacking medicines and basic equipment.