Fallujah is one tough town.
Sun-baked and stubborn, Fallujans are famously unwilling to bend a knee to anyone — British colonizers, the United States army, ISIS, or now the Iraqi government.
Four years ago, the Preemptive Love Coalition and our supporters began sending medical teams to provide lifesaving operations for children. At the same time, the doctors and nurses of Fallujah rallied to serve hundreds of families. The support we received allowed Fallujah General Hospital to become one of the fastest-growing surgical programs we’ve ever seen in Iraq.
In January 2014, we were packing our bags to go back to Fallujah. The suitcase was half-filled when a friend called from the hospital: “Brother, you can’t come. Terrorists are attacking — it’s too dangerous.”
Fallujah had already experienced small-scale attacks and sweeping anti-government protests. Now it was fast becoming an all-out war zone between government troops, local tribes, and a little-known group calling itself ISIS.
After several months, ISIS either defeated or absorbed the local tribes and took control of the city. It was the first major city in Iraq to fall to the group.
Today, a battle is underway to liberate Fallujah from ISIS. The humanitarian crisis is growing each day — with thousands of families trapped and running out of food.
Here are six things you need to know about Fallujah and where the situation rests today.
1. The fight could take weeks. Maybe months.
Fallujah is making headlines now, but this will most likely be a long, brutal fight. ISIS has had a lot of time to prepare for this, which means roads and buildings will be littered with bombs, traps, snipers, roadblocks, and who knows what else.
2. Fallujah is ... complicated.
The simple story we often hear is “Fallujah and ISIS are the same. They all love ISIS there — why help them?” But this is grossly oversimplified and unfair. Reality is much more complex.
My father used to say, “Hurt people hurt people.”— it’s a cycle. A lot of Fallujans have been deeply hurt over the past decade. Whether it’s the U.S. military, al Qaeda, ISIS, or, more recently, the majority-Shia government in Baghdad — people in Fallujah generally feel stuck, with no allies in a sea of enemies.
After months of peaceful anti-government protests, these rallies gradually descended into violence. Each side has a different story about who shot first, but one thing is clear: The government forces came down hard on protestors, in some places even dropping barrel bombs on unarmed youth.
Forced to choose between ISIS and the government, many tribes in Fallujah rejected both as self-interested oppressors. Some sided with ISIS. Others are now fighting alongside the Iraqi government. Some chose not to fight at all and fled to safe havens. Mistrusted by their neighbors, many Fallujans were rejected in places like Kurdistan and are now encamped in the desert.
It’s complicated and, honestly, it’s tough to keep track of which group is fighting which group. But that’s the point: When it comes to a place like Fallujah, nothing is simple. Beware the simple story!
3. Politicians often have ulterior motives. (Surprise!)
After weeks of recent anti-government protests in Baghdad and the parliament in upheaval, the Iraqi government is eager to move attention away from itself, and an attention-arresting military operation is a great way to do that.
The news has since stopped showing footage of protesters invading the heavily fortified Green Zone and demanding an end to corruption. Now its attention is fixed on Fallujah, recapping previous conflicts in the city and speculating about the future of the fight against ISIS.
4. Shia militias are involved in the fight. How — and what it could mean for Fallujah — are unclear.
These are local militias formed to protect communities and fight ISIS. They are largely non-governmental and, maybe most concerning, many are supported by Iran. Many are also not supported by Iran, and not all the militias are Shia. There are Sunni militias battling to recapture the predominantly Sunni city as well.
When Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit was liberated from ISIS last year by mostly militia forces (broadly known as Hashed al Sha’abi in Iraq), there were reports of Shia-on-Sunni revenge killings, looting, and destruction of Sunni property. To avoid further inflaming these sectarian tensions, Shia militias are reportedly staying on the outskirts of Fallujah and not engaging directly in the fight.
5. The humanitarian situation is dire.
Thousands of families are caught in the crossfire. The Iraqi government is encouraging residents to flee Fallujah, but ISIS has threatened to kill anyone who tries. It’s not an idle threat, either.
Food prices have skyrocketed under the government-imposed blockade. Reports of starvation are beginning to pour out of Fallujah as many staples run out.
Families in the city are bracing for the worst. Sadly, urban conflict is something they’ve experienced before. Fallujah was ground zero for insurgency that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It’s where countless depleted uranium bullets were fired in an effort to subdue the uprising, destroying much of the city in the process—and, many believe, causing the rate of cancer and birth defects to skyrocket in the years following.
For many Americans, Fallujah is synonymous with the ferocious fighting that took place here — some of the heaviest combat U.S. forces have endured since the Vietnam War. Some Iraqis have little sympathy for Fallujah, regarding its people as ISIS sympathizers who aren’t worth saving — even though it can be argued that few have suffered more at the hands of ISIS.
6. We love, love the people of Fallujah.
For us, the word “Fallujah” conjures memories of belly laughs, not bombs. It reminds us of crazy-good kabab and fish, not to mention some of the cutest kids this side of the Euphrates.
We have laughed and cried with people in this city, and we long to see it free from tyranny, at peace, made whole.
With ISIS fighters allegedly withholding food from the 50,000 people in trapped in Fallujah, reports say people are eating grass and cats just to survive. They're burning living room furniture so they can boil water for cooking and drinking.
Not showing up is unacceptable. We’re in the midst of serving survivors of the conflict. We’re working with government officials, security forces, and local partners in an effort to open a humanitarian corridor.
Over the past few days, we’ve delivered more than 150,000 pounds of food, along other essential aid, to thousands of survivors inside the active militarized zone around Fallujah and at one of the main displacement camps nearby.
What we found were families, mostly women and children, who were recently liberated from ISIS. Those inside the militarized zone told us they hadn’t received aid from any other organization yet. Many are reportedly sleeping outside, in the desert, without tents or mattresses.
Right now, families who flee are received at security checkpoints before being transferred to displacement camps. As the battle presses into Fallujah, these checkpoints could be overwhelmed by families trying to escape, leaving thousands in limbo.
We are continuing to coordinate with government officials, Iraqi Security Forces, and our local partners to deliver aid as close as possible to those in need.
We have to keep showing up in the hardest places, where the need is most urgent.