Iraq News

Deir Ezzor residents caught in war's crossfire

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Many residents of Deir Ezzor have fled the city for al-Hawl camp in north-eastern al-Hasakeh province. [Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Abdullah]

Many residents of Deir Ezzor have fled the city for al-Hawl camp in north-eastern al-Hasakeh province. [Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Abdullah]

Life has become increasingly difficult for residents of the eastern part of Deir Ezzor city, as "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) militants hunker down in residential neighbourhoods and the Syrian regime escalates its airstrikes.

With control of the city divided between the warring sides, many residents have opted to escape to safer areas in rural al-Hasakeh province, specifically al-Hawl camp near Rajm al-Salibi village.

As they flee, they are exposed to shelling, sniper fire and mine fields planted by ISIL, and are preyed on by smugglers who charge hundreds of dollars to transport them to safer areas, witnesses and residents tell Diyaruna.

Smuggled out

Deir Ezzor resident Mustafa al-Ani, a middle school teacher, said he was able to flee with his family to al-Hasakeh as his identity card lists it as his place of birth.

The journey took about one week in a smuggler's convoy on a "very dangerous road", he said, adding that the group hid from ISIL monitoring posts at a number of points along the way.

"It was necessary to use smugglers to avoid detection, sniper fire and the minefields ISIL has planted to snare escapees," he said, adding that they charged $1,500 to lead him to safety, along with his wife and two sons.

The smugglers' job ends when they leave the dangerous areas, after which the escapee continues on towards the Kurdish forces in al-Hasakeh, al-Ani said.

After reaching them, the escapee is placed in a security camp in Rajm al-Salibi village for a security inspection that involves checking identity cards and passports.

Al-Hasakeh natives are allowed to proceed to relatives in the city, while the rest are moved to al-Hawl camp, unless they have someone to sponsor them, in which case they are allowed to seek refuge in al-Hasakeh or a nearby village.

Dire conditions in Deir Ezzor

"What most compelled me to flee the city of Deir Ezzor is the deteriorating security situation," al-Ani said.

"The group has controlled many parts of the city for more than two years, during which it engaged in all sorts of harassment of residents which turned their lives into hell, and matters got even worse recently," he added.

In addition to the trouble they are facing from ISIL, residents of Deir Ezzor also are coming under violent shelling from the regime directed at the neighbourhoods controlled by the group, al-Ani said.

The situation throughout the city is "difficult, as one part is occupied by ISIL and the other is under the regime's control, which makes for a very dire situation that is inescapable", he said.

ISIL has seized all houses abandoned by city residents who fled to safer areas and has been using them as barracks for its fighters, he added.

"Conditions for those who remained in the ISIL-controlled eastern part of the city are difficult, as unemployment and poverty are rampant and all humanitarian organisations have halted their operations because of the measures ISIL took against them and the security situation," he said.

Internally displaced persons

"The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in al-Hawl camp currently stands at more than 17,000 from both Syria and Iraq," al-Hawl public relations official Yerevan Hussein told Diyaruna.

The number of displaced Syrians who have arrived since the beginning of this year has risen to almost 1,000 people, or more than 260 families, the majority of whom fled the city of Deir Ezzor, while others arrived from al-Raqa, she said.

The camp is overseen by the autonomous administration in north Syria in collaboration with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and a number of local and international humanitarian organisations.

"The situation in the camp can be described as 'good' despite the high number of IDPs, who are provided with meals and basic medical care, while the critical cases are transferred to the city of al-Hasakeh for treatment," Hussein said.

Stringent security measures are taken to control the entry and exit of IDPs from the camp "primarily to protect them and prevent ISIL from exploiting the IDP situation to infiltrate other areas", Hussein said.

As more displaced persons arrive from flash-point areas such as Mosul and Deir Ezzor, arrangements are being made to accommodate as many of them as possible, she said.

'Death lurks in the city'

"What led me to flee Deir Ezzor was the bad living conditions I had been living under since ISIL seized control of a large part of the city and its suburbs," said Deir Ezzor native and al-Hawl camp resident Mohammed Fawaz.

Fawaz told Diyaruna that his wife, infant son and father left Deir Ezzor a few months ago for Turkey, and said he will try to join them after completing the necessary procedures.

He said he opted to stay behind to protect the merchandise left in his building materials store and his furniture, house and car, but ended up selling whatever he could "to get out of hell".

"Death lurks for the residents of the eastern part of the city every day, and whoever manages to leave would be escaping death," he said.

"The situation in the city has been abysmal since the group began to impose its rules and regulations," he said, which included imposing a strict dress code, banning the mixing of genders and forbidding women from leaving home alone.

ISIL banned "satellite dishes and watching satellite channels under the penalty of hand amputation, and also outlawed music, photographs and smoking", Fawaz said. "In short, life was more like living in a big prison."

Matters got worse, he added, when ISIL fighters fleeing from parts of Iraq and Syria, al-Raqa in particular, started arriving in Deir Ezzor.

The situation deteriorated with the outbreak of fighting between ISIL and the regime, he said, as ISIL fighters have spread out in all areas and many of their posts are in residential neighbourhoods.

This has turned all homes into potential targets, he said.

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