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50,000 Civilians Are Trapped In Fallujah As Iraqi Troops Battle ISIS

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Iraqi forces are holding back from a full assault on the city of Fallujah, which ISIS has occupied since January of 2014. Fifty-thousand civilians are estimated to be trapped in Fallujah. There's little food. People drink contaminated river water to survive. About a thousand families have managed to escape to displacement camps nearby. Becky Bakr Abdulla of the Norwegian Refugee Council has met with some of the families and she joins us now from Erbil, Iraq. Thanks so much for being with us.

BECKY BAKR ABDULLA: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How have people escaped the city? Do you know? Can you say?

ABDULLA: Yeah, so from Fallujah city itself, the families are telling us that they've escaped during nighttime. They wait until it's dark. They're only bringing the clothes off their backs and some have managed to bring their ID cards. Other than that, they're not carrying anything with them. They're running. Many are running barefoot in order not to be heard. They're hiding in big drainage pipes. They're swimming across the river.

They're carrying elderly, sick and children with them. Many have escaped 15 to 16 families together. We've also received reports on people that have died when they've managed to escape. Among others, one father carrying his two sons, one in each arm, who stepped on a land mine and died on his way out, hoping for safety.

SIMON: The U.N. estimates there are 20,000 children who are trapped in Fallujah. What do you know about them?

ABDULLA: So what we know about all the civilians that are trapped inside Fallujah is that, like I mentioned, they don't have access to anything. I mean, we have to remember that the last time any humanitarian aid accessed the city was September - late September last year. So they're basically surviving on whatever it is that they can find. Most of it is food for their crops and animals, such as dried dates that they've now started eating themselves.

And they're telling us about constant rockets and bombings and shootings. They're not sleeping. They're afraid of their lives every single minute of the day. And children are kept inside. They're not attending school anymore, obviously. At the same time, the Norwegian Refugee Council, we don't have any direct access into the city. And with the situation being so extremely fluid, it's difficult for us to comment on exactly what is going on in there.

SIMON: And how does the Norwegian Refugee Council help to care for people once they get to a displacement camp?

ABDULLA: Right. So we're located around 30 kilometers away from Fallujah, in an area in Anbar called Amiriyat al-Fallujah. That's the first safe spot that these people come to. Now bear in mind, it's not very safe at all. We're only 12 minutes away from the front lines. But compared to what these people have been through, what they're telling us when they arrive during night, we're so extremely relieved. We never thought that we would make it to safety. This is almost like a dream for us.

One woman told me that my children started laughing so loudly when they saw tomatoes and cucumbers because they've not had that for so many months. Another child, a 6-year-old boy - and this is heartbreaking - started crying when one of my team members offered him a piece of bread. So yeah, they've been through an extremely tough situation, a very, very dire situation indeed.

SIMON: And it's hot there too, in those camps, isn't it?

ABDULLA: Oh, yeah. I mean, here in Iraq, temperatures can go over 50 degrees Celsius. It's smoking hot. It's very, very basic, the aid we're able to provide these people. Some of them only have a tent. They don't even have mattresses because, I mean, bear in mind, Fallujah comes on top of an already unfolding humanitarian crisis in Iraq. We already have 3.4 million people that are internally displaced in this country. This is when we can't turn our backs on the Iraqi people.

SIMON: It strikes me that your camps are awfully close to the front lines.

ABDULLA: Yeah, so NRC, the Norwegian Refugee Council, is one of very few humanitarian organizations that have access into Anbar at all. We've been there for over a year's time now providing assistance to displaced families from all across Anbar. And, I mean, I have to say whilst on duty, we ourselves are hearing, you know, the bombings. We're seeing the smoke. But that's as close as we've managed to get to the people of Fallujah.

Right now, there's two things we're asking for. One, for all the worrying parties to provide the civilians inside Fallujah safe exits out so that they can manage to get across those 30 minutes away where we and some other humanitarian actors are present. But two, provide us with more funding so that we can give them the need - the aid that they so desperately need.

SIMON: Becky Bakr Abdulla, who's media coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council, thanks so much.

ABDULLA: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.