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Families That Fled ISIS-Held Fallujah Tell Of Horrific Living Conditions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We turn now to Iraq, where the operation to take back the ISIS-held city of Fallujah is underway. As Iraqi security forces make advances, many civilians, under the cover of night, have risked their lives and fled. So far, 566 families have made it to displacement camps in neighboring cities, where aid workers, like Elisabeth Koek of the Norwegian Refugee Council, are receiving them. She's learning more about what it means to live under ISIS rule.

ELISABETH KOEK: Around me, I see mostly people who are relieved. I was in the camp, and I had a 6-year-old boy who was given our basic kit of food and he just burst into tears at the sight of bread. He hadn't seen bread in five or six months. People have been surviving on rotting rice or dates or a little bit of yogurt. The people have not had access to any kind of safe and clean drinking water in months. People were telling me about drinking water from agricultural wells where dead carcasses were floating about. There's lack of electricity. This woman was telling me that they were buying bottles of crude oil and putting a date on top of it with a piece of string, and then that's what they would use for lighting.

CHANG: A candle made out of a date.

KOEK: Essentially. A candle made out of a date and crude oil.

CHANG: Many of the families who've made it to these displacement camps are actually from the outskirts of Fallujah. Why haven't more people been able to escape Fallujah proper?

KOEK: ISIS prevents them from escaping. That's very clear. People are telling us, we are too scared to flee. What we know is that there are about 50,000 civilians who are trapped inside the city with war raging on their doorsteps essentially, and the fear is the dominating factor. I think people want to escape but they can't. I heard one story of a family where ISIS found out that they wanted to escape, and they came and they beat the husband and told the family that if they wanted to escape they would get killed. So people are terrified, terrified to escape.

CHANG: And what about the issue of water? We're talking about temperatures reaching 111 degrees Fahrenheit this week. Has supplying enough water been a challenge at these displacement camps?

KOEK: Yes, and I'm glad you asked about that. Water is our biggest concern for people. At the moment, NRC - the Norwegian Refugee Council, for whom I work - are able to provide at least five liters of safe drinking water per person, per day. And that is the bare minimum that a person needs for survival. But it's becoming more and more challenging as more and more people are coming in, and we are expecting the number to rise as the fighting intensifies. So our biggest concern at the moment is getting water, and it is difficult for us because of funding shortages.

CHANG: Have you met any families, anyone, who has escaped, whose story has really stayed with you?

KOEK: Yes. I met this family, and I found it really difficult to listen to - there was a woman telling me a story about how they had to run out of their house. She would send her husband first, over to the next street corner to see if it's safe, and the rest of the family would follow. And then he would run out to the next street corner to see if it was safe. And I just pictured myself in a situation like that and sending a loved one to check if the next street corner was safe and not knowing if I would be able to catch up with him or not.

CHANG: That was Elisabeth Koek talking to us from Baghdad. She's an aid worker with the Norwegian Refugee Council, a group helping civilians who have escaped Fallujah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.