Jameela al-Jassim was desperate, so she did the unthinkable.
Last month, the 26-year-old roped herself and her two young children to a rock and tossed it into a Fallujah river. Their bodies were found shortly after.
The deaths of the young family have sent shockwaves through Fallujah, a city controlled by the so-called Islamic State group and surrounded by Iraqi security forces. No one is sure how many civilians are still inside the city – estimates range from 30,000 to 50,000, but it’s certain that food isn’t getting in and people aren’t getting out.
Abu Mohammed, a relative of the young mother, explained how al-Jassim and her children had been displaced by shelling, how her husband had been executed by IS, how she felt like she had run out of options.
“She felt lost after her husband was killed, and she was no longer able to feed her kids,” he told IRIN.
Sadoun Ubaid, the exiled mayor of Fallujah, said there have been at least 10 other suicides since Iraqi security forces and allied militias tightened their grip around the city three months ago.
“Death is threatening the people of Fallujah because of the shortage of food and medication,” he told IRIN.
Human Rights Watch shares his concerns.
“The people of Fallujah are besieged by the government, trapped by IS, and are starving,” its deputy Middle East director Joe Stork warned in a statement Thursday.
A plea for help
Shortly after the bodies were found, a grainy video began making the rounds on Iraqi social media. It shows a woman in niqab (face veil), only her eyes showing, standing in front of a stove and gesturing animatedly at what appears to be a mobile phone camera.
“We are dying of hunger and oppression [in Fallujah],” she exclaims. “Our kids are falling sick and dying.”
The woman, whose name has not been published, refers to al-Jassim’s act: “Some people prefer to throw their kids in the river and commit suicide to forget the suffering and humiliation.”
She appeals to Arab countries and the West for help, even suggesting that she’d prefer a chemical weapon was dropped on the city rather than being left “to die slowly.”
The UN has no access to Fallujah, and residents are surviving on expensive and often expired food. Several people mentioned that they were eating dates that tasted like “animal fodder.” Human Rights Watch said it had reports of people consuming soup made from grass.
Lack of medication is also a major concern. When Ubaid spoke to IRIN last week, he said four children had died in recent days because they lacked proper treatment or medication. A medical source in Fallujah, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited the same number.
“We have more and more cases of dehydration and the medical crews are unable to deal with this or the lack of food,” the source told IRIN. “We are warning of a real humanitarian disaster.”
Speaking Thursday, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told IRIN that the UN, too, is “terribly worried about the situation in Fallujah.”
She confirmed that the price of basic foodstuffs had increased dramatically and that supplies are not getting in.
“People with chronic illnesses who need specialised medication to survive are in real trouble,” she said. “We have reports from key informants that families are already trying to adapt to the situation by foregoing meals, in some cases for days at a time, and are being forced to reduce the number of calories they consume. We have to assume that people who are already suffering must now be at acute risk.”
One Fallujah woman, who spoke to IRIN on the condition that she remain anonymous, worried about how her large family would survive.
“I have eight kids and there is nothing to feed them. No rice, no flour, not even dates.”
Using the common Arabic name for IS, she insisted that her family had no connection to the militant Islamists.
“We are not Daesh… we are victims who have no power.”
Her insistence that she harbours no sympathy for IS points to the complications of the siege of Fallujah. There’s a deep sense of mistrust between Fallujah’s largely Sunni population and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government.
“More than once we have called on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to drop aid [into Fallujah] but had no clear response,” Ubaid said.
He told IRIN that he felt the city was being purposely ignored because of its opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The city was then a hotbed of insurgent activity, and later an al-Qaeda stronghold. There’s a feeling that the local population wasn’t altogether opposed to IS when the group first took power in January 2014.
A group of leaders of Sunni tribes in Anbar Province, which includes Fallujah, echoed Ubaid’s sentiments in a statement issued 29 March.
“What Fallujah faces from starvation and an embargo is a collective punishment practised by the government and its security forces from the outside, and by Daesh from inside. The people of Falujah are facing Daesh terrorism and a deliberate targeting by the government.”
No way out
Al-Jassim’s tragic end was tied up with the complicated web of allegiances that exist inside the besieged city.
Both Abu Mohammed and Colonel Jamal al-Jumaili, the commander of Anbar’s emergency police, told IRIN that her husband was executed by IS because he had been a police officer.
Then several of her relatives joined IS, including at least one brother, al-Jumaili said.
“The woman’s brothers are with Daesh and are wanted by our security forces.”
Given these connections, even if she had wanted to flee Fallujah, al-Jassim would have had no way out.
Previously, bribes would have done the trick, but this is now less of an option as residents fear both IS and the Shiite militias that surround the city.
As the UN’s Grande puts it: "There have been pressure valves in many of the areas under ISIL control; it was possible, under very difficult circumstances, and if you were very lucky, to find a way out. This is becoming more and more difficult. People are trapped; with no way out."
As reports of the desperation inside Fallujah grow, Grande said the Iraqi government has confirmed that it “intends to open safe passages to help people leave the city and reach safety.” The details have not yet been worked out.
“From what we know of conditions in Fallujah,” she said, “this can't happen soon enough."