The sweltering tent housing Hussein, his wife, and five young children contained almost nothing but foam mattresses and dust. Aid workers had dropped off a giant bag of laundry detergent, but there was no water for drinking, much less for washing. The family also had received a grill, but had no food to cook on it or fuel to fire it up.
“I am thirsty. My children are thirsty,” said Hussein, a 42-year-old construction worker. He mopped his head with a grimy towel. “We left to save our skins, but that’s all we have left.”
The scene was similar in tent after tent today in Kalak, a town 40 kilometers west of Erbil that in the past week has been overrun with Iraqis fleeing fighting between government troops and the militant armed group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Most of the 2,000 Iraqis huddled at the Kalak camp came from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which ISIS seized last week. Others, including Hussein, came from the nearby town of Tal Afar, also under ISIS control.
Barely a breeze crept through the United Nations-donated tents, pitched on clay baking in 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit) heat. Most of the camp residents were children. They sat in heaps in tents and under the sun, too parched to play. Local and international aid workers at the camp said all residents had water and food at some point in the day but that far more was needed. Security at the camp was even scarcer.
The Kalak tent dwellers are just a tiny fraction of the Iraqis internally displaced by the fighting – up to half-a-million from Mosul alone. Conditions are little better at Iraq’s other camps, threatening to create a humanitarian crisis atop the mounting indiscriminate attacks on civilians, extrajudicial executions, and other atrocities by all sides to the fighting.
The United States is mulling whether to ramp up arms shipments or intervene militarily in Iraq. The Obama administration and its allies need to make sure that any military support or action does not further human rights abuses, and to press Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to create a genuinely inclusive government – a key to weakening the allure of groups like ISIS.
In the meantime, desperate Iraqis continue to flood camps like Kalak. “The only thing worse than being here,” said Hussein, the father of five from Tal Afar, “would be going back.”