Traumatized women and children fleeing the Tal Afar district have told Oxfam how people died walking for days through the desert in 122F heat to reach safety.
On Sunday, the Iraqi army launched a major offensive to retake Tal Afar, one of the last urban strongholds held by ISIS in the country. More than 30,000 people have already fled the city, according to the UN, and up to 40,000 remain in and around Tal Afar.
Oxfam’s Amy Christian met some of those fleeing Tal Afar in a screening site in Badush, around 37 miles east of the city, where Oxfam is supporting those that have fled.
“The sound of children crying was deafening,” said Christian. “Covered in dirt and incredibly thin, they had been through hell to get there. The families stayed very close to each other and the women held on tightly to young children and babies. Everyone looked extremely exhausted and clearly traumatized from their experience. After days walking in the blistering heat, they urgently need food, water and shelter.”
One mother said that the road they took to escape smelled of the bodies of the dead while another said that she feared her husband was dead as ISIS took him when they fled. People also said that they had run out of food in Tal Afar and had to escape during the night as ISIS was preventing them from fleeing.
“We left because we were afraid of the airstrikes,” said Ahlam Ibrahim, who fled the village of Mzra’a near Tal Afar when bombing began. “We were so afraid for the children. The road was steep and rocky and old people were dying. It was so hard to walk and the road smelled of dead bodies. I lost my voice because I was shouting at my children to stay with me. They were so scared.”
Nahida Ali*, also from Mzra’a, told how she walked for two days in the blistering heat with no water. “ISIS took my husband two days ago as we tried to escape,” she said. “We wanted to leave a month ago but ISIS wouldn’t let us. If they saw a family leaving they would take the men. We saw a lot of people killed; that’s why we were so afraid. We are worried they will kill my husband. My son won’t stop crying because ISIS took his father and we don’t know where he is.”
Oxfam is calling on the government of Iraq to ensure that civilians can reach safety and receive the help they urgently need. It is also calling on all parties to the conflict to avoid harming civilians that stay in the city and protect civilian areas and infrastructure – including avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide area affect.
Oxfam is on the ground providing families with lifesaving assistance.