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Iraq: “We walked all night, staying away from roads for fear of being caught”

12 Apr 2017

Al Alam camp, near Tikrit, is home to about 8,000 people who have been displaced from their homes to the north by the ongoing conflict. The families have come here in search of safety and support, from towns and villages ravaged by conflict, where food, fuel and medicines are scarce. Médecins Sans Frontières has been running mobile clinics in camps and informal settlements in the Tikrit area since August 2016, providing general consultations, treatment for chronic diseases and psychosocial support. 

In January 2017, Médecins Sans Frontières opened a permanent clinic with a stabilisation unit in Al Alam camp. “People are extremely vulnerable and rely on humanitarian assistance,” says Médecins Sans Frontières medical coordinator Géraldine Duc. “They have fled conflict and often arrive here bringing only what they can carry. And the climate here is extreme – in winter the temperatures drop to zero and in summer the sun is scorching. People live in tents, sleeping on the ground or on thin mattresses.” 

"“We walked all night over the mountains to reach here because there is not enough food in Hawija"

Khalid, 19, came to Al Alam from Hawija, a district to the north, with his family in October. “We walked all night, staying away from the roads for fear of being caught,” he says. “During the walk, I picked up an object and it exploded in my hand.” The explosion caused serious injuries to Khalid’s arm and head, and he has undergone several rounds of surgery in hospitals in the area. Now he comes to Médecins Sans Frontières’ clinic to have his wounds cleaned and dressed. The district of Hawija has been under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group for more than two years. 

Médecins Sans Frontières is also providing healthcare and mental health support in Al Hajjaj Silo and in Samad, a neighbourhood in Al Alam where displaced families have settled in unfinished buildings. In Al Hajjaj Silo, three women who recently arrived on foot from Hawija are waiting outside Médecins Sans Frontières’ mobile clinic with two babies. The babies were born on the same night about six months ago, but one is much smaller than the other. “She has a heart problem,” says the mother. “We walked all night over the mountains to reach here because there is not enough food in Hawija. There are no doctors, and everything from fuel to drugs to soap is very expensive there.” 

Almost all the displaced people have witnessed or experienced brutal violence, which can bring on psychological problems. The trauma of displacement and separation from loved ones, as well as limited access to medications, have also exacerbated people’s pre-existing mental health conditions. Poor living conditions and uncertainty about the future further add to people’s stress. “We see many patients arriving with symptoms of stress and trauma,” says Médecins Sans Frontières mental health activity manager Ana Martins. “They have not experienced one or two traumatic events, but have been continuously exposed to traumatic events and ongoing violence. Now this is showing in symptoms like panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeping problems and generalised body pain.”

Displaced people in Iraq are caught between a rock and a hard place: the conditions in safer zones where fleeing populations are heading are far from being optimal and their return home is rendered difficult due to persistent instability and the absence of fundamental survival requirements.