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20,000 Children and their families feared to be trapped in Fallujah

There are fears that the thousands of civilians who remain trapped could be used as human shields by IS

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  • Children face the risk of forced recruitment into the fighting and separation from their families
  • Nearly 3,700 people, or 624 families, have managed to escape the fighting in Fallujah
  • Many Sunnis in Baghdad say they live in fear of the Shi’ite militias

BAGHDAD- Around 20,000 children are said to be trapped in Fallujah of Iraq as fight continues for control of the city which has been seized by Islamic State militants  two years ago

Since the Iraqi military operation began for Fallujah, 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, “very few families have been able to leave; most have moved to two camps while others have sought refuge with relatives and extended families,” according to the U.N. Children’s Fund. The U.N. agency also warns that children face the risk of forced recruitment into the fighting and separation from their families.

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Nearly 3,700 people, or 624 families, have managed to escape the fighting in Fallujah – a traditionally Sunni stronghold – since last week, said the U.N. There are fears that the thousands of civilians who remain trapped could be used as human shields by IS. Humanitarian agencies say those who have managed to escape describe a deteriorating situation where food and medicines are in short supply and the water unsafe for drinking.

Dressed in the black uniform of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces and flanked by Iraqi military commanders, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi urged the country’s armed forces to protect civilians as they fight to take the city.

Gunnery Sergeant Ryan P. Shane shot while trying to rescue wounded Marine in Fallujah.
Gunnery Sergeant Ryan P. Shane shot while trying to rescue wounded Marine in Fallujah. Image source: Wikipedia

Iraqi forces, including the army, counterterrorism units, special forces, local fighters and Hashd al Shaabi militias, have met with stiff IS resistance around the city.

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“A human catastrophe is unfolding in Fallujah. Families are caught in the crossfire with no safe way out,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Egeland said he expects the situation to quickly worsen as summer approaches, with temperatures likely to hit or exceed 50 degrees Celsius.

Civilian men screened

Iraqi forces, meanwhile, are separating out and screening the men, concerned about the loyalties of those who are leaving the city after living under IS rule.

“Approximately 500 men and boys over 12 years old are held for security screening, which can take five to seven days,” said UNHCR spokesman William Spindler.

Shi’ite presence

Hashd al-Shaabi has taken an important role in the fight against IS, and some see the pro-Iran militias as better trained than the Iraqi army. Others, however, are worried that a strong Shi’ite presence in the war against IS — whose strongholds are in predominantly Sunni areas — will only further aggravate the deep sectarian divisions that already exist in the country.

Many Sunnis in Baghdad say they live in fear of the Shi’ite militias, and human rights organizations have flagged abuses by the militias in the past.

Former national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie  said “I believe the Hashd al-Shaabi should have, and is having, a pivotal role in the liberation of our occupied territories.”

-prepared by Bhaskar Raghavendran (with inputs from VOA), a reporter at NewsGram. Twitter:  bhaskar_ragha

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U.N. Agencies Running Out of Money for Essential Relief Activities, Yemen’s Children Continue To Suffer

Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian operations in Yemen are at risk of running out of money in the coming weeks.

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A nurse looks as he weighs a malnourished girl at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen, Oct. 7, 2018. VOA

The United Nations said Monday that the five-year-old conflict in Yemen has taken a “devastating toll” on the country’s children, with thousands killed, maimed and recruited to fight since the war began.

“The impact of this conflict on children is horrific,” Virginia Gamba, U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, told a meeting of the Security Council. “All parties to the conflict have acted and reacted militarily to events resulting in the use and abuse of children in multiple ways.”

Since monitoring began in Yemen in April 2013 (before the conflict fully erupted) until the end of the 2018, Gamba said more than 7,500 children have been killed or maimed and more than 3,000 have been verified as recruited or used, and there have been more than 800 documented cases of denial of humanitarian access to children.

Gamba said children reportedly have been forcibly recruited from schools, orphanages and communities to fight on the front lines, man checkpoints, deliver supplies or gather intelligence.

FILE - A 17-year-old boy holds his weapon in High dam in Marib, Yemen, July 30, 2018.
A 17-year-old boy holds his weapon in High dam in Marib, Yemen, July 30, 2018. VOA

Last year, over half of the children recruited were under the age of 15. During that period, the U.N. says more than 200 were killed or maimed while being used by the warring parties.

Gamba called out the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels for recruiting the majority of the children, followed by the Popular Resistance, Yemen Armed Forces and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

“The numbers I present to you today represent a mere fraction of violations committed against children in Yemen,” she told council members.

In addition to harm to child soldiers, Gamba said of the more than 7,500 children killed or maimed between 2013 and 2018, nearly half of the casualties were caused by Saudi-coalition airstrikes.

Another 40 percent of such casualties came in ground fighting, including shelling and mortars. Gamba said Houthi rebels were largely to blame, followed by Yemeni government forces, among others.

It is not the first time the U.N. has called out the Saudi-led coalition or the Houthis for harming Yemeni children. But while both sides say they avoid harming civilians, the toll continues to rise.

Redeployment of forces

The U.N. has been working to end the conflict. On Monday, special envoy Martin Griffiths offered a glimmer of hope that the parties might be ready to take a first step away from the battlefield.

He told council members that both the Saudi coalition-backed Yemeni government and the Houthis have accepted a detailed redeployment plan to begin moving their fighters away from the crucial Red Sea port city of Hodeida.

FILE - Houthi militants patrol a street where pro-Houthi protesters demonstrated against the Saudi-led coalition in Hodeida, Yemen.
Houthi militants patrol a street where pro-Houthi protesters demonstrated against the Saudi-led coalition in Hodeida, Yemen. VOA

“We will now move with all speed toward resolving the final outstanding issues related to the operational plans for phase two, redeployments and also the issue of the status of local security forces,” Griffiths told the council in a video briefing from Amman, Jordan.

The parties committed to the plan at talks in Stockholm in December, but efforts to implement the agreement have failed. Griffiths expressed some confidence that they would go forward now.

“When — and I hope it is when and not if — these redeploys happen, they will be the first ones in this long conflict,” he said.

Griffiths acknowledged that the “the war in Yemen … shows no sign of abating,” and said there needs to be real progress on the military redeployments before the focus can shift back to the political track.

U.S. Acting U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen welcomed Houthi acceptance to phase one of the withdrawal plan and said Washington would be “watching closely to see if they make good on that agreement.”

Funds urgently needed

Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian operations in Yemen are at risk of running out of money in the coming weeks.

In February, international donors pledged $2.6 billion for Yemen relief operations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — who are prosecuting the war against the Houthis — pledged an additional $1 billion.

FILE - A girl sleeps on a bed at a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen, Aug. 4, 2018.
A girl sleeps on a bed at a cholera treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen, Aug. 4, 2018. VOA

But U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock said that nearly four months into 2019, the response plan has received only $267 million in actual funding.

“U.N. agencies are rapidly running out of money for essential relief activities,” he warned.

The country, which is facing a cholera epidemic, could see 60% of its diarrhea treatment centers close in the coming weeks if money is not received. U.N. food programs, which provide emergency food assistance to more than 9 million people every month, would also be impacted.

“Closing or scaling back such programs — at a time when we are struggling to prevent widespread famine and roll back cholera and other killer diseases — would be catastrophic,” Lowcock said.

He also warned that a potential environmental disaster is brewing off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

Lowcock said that an oil tanker used as a floating storage and offloading facility, and which is 8 kilometers off the coast at the Ras Isa terminal, is old and has not received any maintenance since 2015. It has about 1.1 million barrels of oil on board.

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“Without maintenance, we fear that it will rupture or even explode, unleashing an environmental disaster in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes,” Lowcock said.

A Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing Houthi rebels in support of Yemen’s government in March 2015. Since then, the U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed, mostly due to coalition airstrike. (VOA)