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Conditions At Iraqi Refugee Camps Near Fallujah Concern Aid Groups

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly a week of fighting between the Iraqi army and ISIS militants in Fallujah has caused more than 30,000 people to flee to refugee camps outside the region. Aid groups who are assisting the camps are concerned about the conditions there, as well as lack of funding to care for this massive population of displaced people. On the phone with us from Baghdad is Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He's been traveling back and forth between the camps. What have you been seeing?

KARL SCHEMBRI: Well, the scenes coming from the camps are extremely distressing, and it's getting worse every day. Dozens of families are still out there waiting for tents to be housed somewhere to be protected from the heat and the elements. It's a very difficult terrain. These people have come after hours of walking from their city just to reach to safety. And we're running out of food, of water, of latrines to install. It's a very difficult situation.

MARTIN: We've seen, in recent days, Iraqi forces have retaken the majority of the city of Fallujah. But clearly, it still feels unstable that these tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing.

SCHEMBRI: The situation within the city is still extremely dangerous. There's still fighting going on, but it's also full of explosive devices. There's also massive destruction of houses and the infrastructure there, which makes it impossible for these people to return anytime soon. These people have lived for months on end under siege. They are clearly hungry, exhausted, and now they've come into this nightmare when they should be fleeing to a place of safety. We are unable to provide for them for their immediate needs.

MARTIN: What are some of the stories you have heard about what life in Fallujah under ISIS is like?

SCHEMBRI: Well, especially in the last year and in the few - last few months it has been, really, a nightmare to live in Fallujah. None of the basic supplies were actually making it through. People were living off - on animal feed, on expired dates and drinking the river water, which is undrinkable. I've met people who have lost their relatives drowning in the Euphrates River when they tried to escape from the sniper fire. They tried to flee from Fallujah. The level of trauma that is coming from there is something we haven't even started talking about. Right now, we're just struggling to deal with the basic necessities - water, food, medicines, tents, mattresses. That's the kind of place we're in right now.

MARTIN: How is the Iraqi government addressing the crisis?

SCHEMBRI: The Iraqi government could be doing more in coordination with the United Nations in managing these sites and making sure that aid arrives more efficiently. But let's not forget - of the total Iraqi population, at least 10 million Iraqis need some kind of humanitarian assistance. And only 30 percent of those needs have been funded by the international community, hence our appeal to the governments. You can't wage a war on ISIS and abandon the civilians who are living in such conditions.

MARTIN: Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council on the line with us from Baghdad. Thank you so much.

SCHEMBRI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.