FALLUJAH — Three years after a devastating U.S.-led siege of the city, residents of Fallujah continue to struggle with a shattered economy, infrastructure, and lack of mobility.
The city that was routed in November 2004 is still suffering the worst humanitarian conditions under a siege that continues. Although military actions are down to the minimum inside the city, local and US authorities do not seem to be thinking of ending the agonies of the over 400,000 residents of Fallujah.
“You, people of the media, say things in Fallujah are good,” Mohammad Sammy, an aid worker for the Iraqi Red Crescent in Fallujah told IPS, “Then why don’t you come and live in this paradise with us? It is so easy to say things for you, isn’t it?”
His anger is due to the fact that the embattled city is still completely closed and surrounded by military checkpoints to make it look like an isolated island. Those who are not genuine residents of the city are not granted the biometric identification badge from the U.S. Marines, and are thus not allowed to enter the city.
Since the November 2004 U.S.-led attack on the city, named Operation Phantom Fury, which left approximately 70 percent of the city destroyed, the U.S. military has required residents to undergo retina scans, and finger-printings in order to gain a bar-code for identification.
“This isolation has destroyed the economy of the city that was once one the best in Iraq,” Professor Mohammad Al-Dulaymi of Al-Anbar University told IPS. “All of the other cities in the province used to do their wholesale shopping in Fallujah, but now they have to find alternatives, leaving the cities businesses to starve,” he explained.
All of the residents interviewed by IPS were extremely angry with the media for recent reports that the situation in the city is good. Many refused to be quoted for different reasons.
“Fallujah is probably the city that had the most of media coverage in the history of the occupation,” Hatam Jawad, a school headmaster in Fallujah told IPS. “People are tired of shouting and appearing on TV to complain, without feeling any change in their sorrowful living situation. Some of them are afraid of police revenge for telling the truth.”
Many residents told IPS that U.S.-backed Iraqi Police and Army personnel have detained people who have spoken to the media.
“I am not going to tell you whether it is good or bad to be a Fallujah resident,” 55-year-old lawyer, Shakir Naji, told IPS. “Why don’t you just ask what the prices of essential materials are and judge for yourself? Kerosene for heating is almost one U.S. dollar per liter, a jar of propane gas is 15 dollars, and it is not winter yet when the prices will definitely be doubled.”
Water and electricity services are at a minimum in the city. An Oxfam International report released in July found that 70 percent of Iraqis do not have access to safe drinking water.
Since the November 2004 siege, entire neighborhoods remain totally destroyed, and with no water or electricity. Most of the businesses in Fallujah remain closed.
“We depend upon the private sector for electricity,” Fatima Saed, a woman whose husband was detained in 2005 and has not been released yet told IPS. “In my situation, to pay 50 dollars a month [for electricity] is a disaster because I have to cut it from the quantity and quality of food that I buy for myself and my kids.”
The Oxfam report also stated, “At the beginning of May 2007, the Central Office for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT), part of the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, released a survey highlighting the fact that 43 percent of Iraqis suffer from ‘absolute poverty’. The poverty of many families is rooted in unemployment, which affects probably more than 50 percent of the workforce.”
Fallujah General Hospital, situated across the Euphrates River from the city, is still functioning, but with a minimal number of specialist doctors and medical supplies. The only doctor who would speak to IPS did not want his name published.
“The manager of this hospital is a good man and he is trying hard to improve the services, but the Ministry of Health in Baghdad still treats us here as a bunch of terrorists. We are suffering both corruption from the ministry and ignorance about Al-Anbar Province from this (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) administration,” he explained. “We do not have enough medicines, and the equipment brought to us by contractors is still in boxes and seems to be part of the corrupt contracts of the province. It is impossible to work under such conditions.”
People coming for treatment or surgeries in the hospital appeared desperate to get their essential needs met.
“We have to buy cotton, bandages, medicines and all we need from private pharmacies,” 35-year-old Muath Tahir, a teacher who had his appendix removed three days earlier told IPS. “Those who can manage would go to the private hospital for better treatment, but my 230 dollar salary is not even enough for my daily needs. This city has become impossible to live in.”
(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)