Lauren Bohn reports: In the past year alone, 43-year-old Omar says he’s watched hundreds die. Or as he describes it, “boom, gone, the end.”
Omar is an administrator of one of the busiest hospitals in Fallujah, in Iraq’s restive Anbar province. First, his brother nearly lost a leg in a mortar attack. Then, his neighbor’s home was destroyed in shelling. Soon after, his mother narrowly missed a bombing in their once-placid neighborhood. But it wasn’t until he watched a 5-year-old girl in a bright pink shirt take her last gasp of air outside his office, her body torn apart from shelling, that he knew he had to leave his hometown. Life in Iraq, as he puts it, has become an endless flow of “dark, dark red.”
“Every day, I saw children watching parents die and parents watching children die,” he says, recalling grim scenes from the hospital he’s worked at for years. “I couldn’t raise my children there any longer … we all have targets on our head.”
Back in January, six months before the Islamic State, then still ISIS, seized the world’s attention by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the group and its allies took the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi. It was one of the first signs that Iraq’s Sunni regions were falling into a state of open rebellion against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The ragtag fighters saw an opening after then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered security forces to dismantle a yearlong sit-in camp near Ramadi, claiming it had become a base for al Qaeda-linked militants. Sunnis like Omar had been protesting for the release of Sunni prisoners who they said were detained arbitrarily and without trial; they deeply resented their political exclusion from the Shiite-led central government. This wasn’t the first time Anbar province had become a center of revolt: After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, the region became ground zero for a Sunni-led insurgency against the Iraqi government and U.S. troops.
Omar is one of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who have fled Iraq’s largest province since fighting swept the region in January. He and his family have resettled in Shaqlawa, a mountain-ringed city near the regional capital of Erbil. There are so many displaced people from Fallujah that residents jokingly call the town “Shaqlujah.”
Many live cramped lives in converted hotels, but middle-class families like Omar have rented homes, blending into a town they once traveled to for summer holidays. Christians and Yazidis have also sought refuge from other Islamic State-controlled territories, bringing with them horror stories of mass executions and kidnappings. But as a Sunni Arab, who complains of systemic oppression by Shiites in Baghdad, Omar wasn’t fleeing the Islamic State — in fact, he believes it is necessary in what he calls a renewed fight for the survival of Iraqi Sunnis. [Continue reading…]