Iraq: One year after fleeing violence, families in northern Iraq still live in uncertainty

One year ago, Hadji Charmeed’s family had to make the most difficult decision of their lives. “I am unable to walk because of my previous injury in war,” says Hadji, looking at his partly amputated foot. “My family didn’t want to leave me behind, so they decided we will all stay together.” That was the day when armed groups stormed Sinjar district in Iraq’s Ninewa province, killing and displacing thousands of people.

Some people ran away and sought refuge in the Sinjar Mountains. Others, like Hadji, were captured. After months spent in captivity, Hadji and part of his family finally found made it to the north of Iraqi Kurdistan and their home is now near the city of Zakho. Leaving everything behind and arriving with empty hands, his family now occupies one of the unfinished houses in the area.

The unfinished houses and skeletal multi-storey apartment blocks in the area are now home to approximately 700 families (each family made up of at least six members).

The living conditions in the unfinished buildings are dire. Made of concrete, most of them don’t have any windows or doors installed and are open to the elements. They don’t protect from the cold and wet weather in winter, nor from the heat in summer, when temperatures can rise over 50°C. With difficult access to water and no electricity, the harsh conditions complicate the life and health of people in the settlement.

MSF has been running mobile clinics in the area around Zakho since August 2014. Between January and June 2015, MSF medical teams provided a total of 15,788 consultations to displaced people living in unfinished buildings around Zakho. “Ten per cent of our cases are psychosomatic, which is a very high number,” explains Jalal Alyas, one of the MSF nurses. “Forty per cent of our patients suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes or hypertension and the rest face viral and respiratory infections, diarrhoea and skin diseases like scabies." The latter conditions especially are the result of the poor living situation, with many people also suffering abscesses and infected wounds caused by poor hygiene.

One year after they fled en masse, displaced families face the same situation as when they arrived – their lives have not improved and they continue to live in uncertainty. They cannot return home, some of them are threatened by owners who want to reclaim their properties, the camps for displaced populations are full, and funding for activities supporting them is dropping. “Many families are in need of humanitarian assistance and live in appalling conditions in unfinished buildings. Donors have started to turn away and people living outside of the camps continue to be neglected,” says MSF field coordinator Caroline Voûte.

Farhan Khala lives in harsh and uncertain conditions in one of the flats of a multi-storey cement skeleton near Zakho.  Like many displaced people, there is one thought that remains in his mind. “I wish for my family to find a safe place for life. We would give everything we have left to be reunited together again as a family,” he says.

The escalation of the armed conflict over the past two years has led to mass displacement, with more than three million people displaced across the country since January 2014, according to official figures.

MSF has been responding to the humanitarian needs of displaced people who fled from Anbar, Salah–al-Din and later Ninewa governorates. MSF medical teams strive to provide health care in different areas of the country, along with water and sanitation services and blanket and non-food item (NFI) distributions. Since January 2015, MSF teams have provided a total of 55,598 consultations to displaced Iraqis.

MSF has worked continuously in Iraq since 2006, in various locations in the north and south of the country. In order to ensure its independence, MSF does not accept funding from any government, religious committee, or international agency for its programs in Iraq, and relies solely on private donations from the general public around the world to carry out its work. MSF currently employs over 300 staff in Iraq.