Iraq: “We Walked All Night, Staying Away from Roads for Fear of Being Caught”

Karin Ekholm/MSF

Al Alam Camp, near Tikrit, Iraq, is currently home to about 8,000 women, children, and men who were displaced from their homes to the north by the ongoing conflict. These families have come here in search of safety and support, from towns and villages ravaged by conflict, where food, fuel, and medicines are scarce.

The camp has two sections, each surrounded by high metal fences. In the strong wind, the tents seem to crouch under a steely grey sky. Children wearing sandals and light clothes run and play between them. One family stands outside the gates, their few belongings in their arms. They have just arrived and are waiting to be registered and allocated a tent.

“People Bring Only What They Can Carry”

In the camp’s clinic, which is run by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a queue forms early in the morning. The waiting area rapidly fills up with children and their mothers. "People are extremely vulnerable and rely on humanitarian assistance," says MSF 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."

“It Exploded in my Hand”

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 MSF’s clinic to have his wounds cleaned and dressed.  

Hawija has been under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group for more than two years. Since military operations intensified in August, tens of thousands of people have fled the district. Many fleeing families describe shortages of food and fuel in the area, and perilous journeys to reach safety. More than three million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes since the beginning of 2014 because of violence. The conflict has also disrupted the country’s health care system and increased the overall need for medical services.

Living in Unfinished Buildings

MSF also provides health care and mental health support in Al Hajjaj Silo, a transit camp; and in Samad, a neighborhood in Al Alam where displaced families have settled in unfinished buildings. In Al Hajjaj Silo, three women who recently arrived on foot from Hawija wait outside MSF’s 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."

Recurring Trauma

Most of the displaced people in the Tikrit area come from Hawija, to the northeast, or from Shirqat and Baiji, to the northwest. Almost all 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 add to people’s stress, which is why mental health support is an important component of MSF’s activities.

"We see many patients arriving with symptoms of stress and trauma," says MSF 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 generalized body pain."

With the help of psychosocial counselors, MSF provides patients with support to prevent these symptoms from becoming more serious. But for some people the symptoms are already severe, and they need specialized psychiatric care, though, as Martins explains, making sure this happens can be a challenge.

"Some of our patients need to be referred to a hospital for specialized psychiatric care," says Martins. "But there is only one psychiatrist in Salaheddin general hospital, and the right psychotropic medication is not always available. Referrals can also be complicated because the patients need to have security clearance to pass through the checkpoints and access the hospital."

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 by persistent instability and the absence of fundamental survival needs.     

MSF 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, MSF opened a permanent clinic with a stabilization unit in Al Alam camp. 

MSF has worked continuously in Iraq since 2006. In order to ensure its independence, MSF does not accept funding from any government, religious group, or international agency for its programs in Iraq, and relies solely on private donations from the general public around the world to carry out its work. MSF currently employs more than 1,600 staff in Iraq.