Violence in northern and western Iraq has increased dramatically in scale and intensity since late 2013, with grave consequences for civilians caught in the crossfire between the Iraqi army and opposition armed groups. In recent weeks, some 500,000 people have reportedly fled Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, after it came under the control of armed opposition groups. In this interview, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission Fabio Forgione explains the situation.
What is the current situation in Iraq?
Escalating violence in Iraq’s Anbar governorate over the past six months, and more recently in the city of Mosul, is having enormous consequences for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. More than 400,000 people who fled Anbar governorate in the past six months are in need of assistance and emergency medical care. In addition, an estimated 500,000 people have reportedly fled Mosul since armed opposition groups took control of the city on June 12. People have reportedly fled from the west to the east of the city, to other parts of Ninewah governorate, and to the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRG), while fighting is ongoing in several areas of the country.
What is the humanitarian situation for people forced to abandon their homes in Anbar governorate and Mosul?
The humanitarian situation is extremely concerning. The displaced people are faced with difficult living conditions. They are staying in schools, mosques, unfinished buildings, or with relatives. They need water, shelter, food, and emergency health care. Hospitals and health facilities are increasingly short of medical and paramedical staff, who are fleeing the conflict areas en masse. There are severe shortages of drugs and medical supplies, as it is a struggle to bring supplies into the region.
The extremely volatile security situation in Iraq today makes it very difficult for humanitarian organizations to gain access to the conflict areas.
Can you describe the incident in which an MSF clinic in Tikrit was damaged by shelling?
On June 13, MSF’s clinic in Tikrit was severely damaged during indiscriminate shelling of the city. Fortunately, nobody was hurt since we had only recently set up the clinic with the local health authorities to provide essential medical care to the displaced population, estimated at 40,000 people. We were expecting to receive the first patients on June 15.
How is MSF responding to the current situation?
Despite the increasingly volatile security situation, MSF is stepping up its activities in response to this crisis. MSF has reinforced its surgical teams in Hawijah, while teams are starting to run mobile clinics in several locations to provide displaced people with primary health care, treatment for chronic diseases, and reproductive health care. MSF is also supporting the emergency department in the only functioning hospital in Tikrit.
MSF has been working in Iraq continuously since 2006. Is this the worst crisis it has seen in that time?
Anbar governorate has been hit by a surge in fighting since late last year, particularly around the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. The violence is at its worst since 2008. Those who have been recently displaced add to the more than 1.1 million Iraqis who have been unable to return to areas that experienced extreme violence from 2006 to 2008.
What are the main challenges faced by your teams?
Providing the most basic assistance and medical care to the displaced population is extremely challenging for humanitarian organizations on the ground, given the security situation and the fact that people are scattered over a large area. The fact that international staff—who hold a position of neutrality in a conflict which is becoming increasingly sectarian—cannot be deployed in most areas for security reasons makes the provision of impartial aid more complicated.
Additionally, all efforts should be made to bring aid into the region. Humanitarian organizations are being prevented from properly addressing the magnitude of people’s needs by a lack of funding. The intensity of the conflict and the very real possibility that it could spread to other areas of the country requires an urgent and decisive engagement by international donors in responding to the humanitarian consequences of this crisis.