Iraqi families risk all to flee militant-held Hawijah

AFP , Sunday 10 Jan 2016

Hundreds of families are fleeing hunger and militant rule in the Iraqi city of Hawijah and surrounding areas, witnesses and officials said Sunday.

Many have died on the perilous journey to reach Iraqi security forces, which have moved closer to Hawijah following recent gains against the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

"These families walk for two days or more through the Hamreen mountains," Colonel Fattah al-Khafaji, the police chief in charge of the Hawijah region, told AFP.

The officer was speaking near Al-Fatha, where security forces say they receive and assist families that have fled militant-held villages every day.

Umm Ahmed, a 31-year-old mother, lost her husband and one of her five children on the way from Hawijah.

"We fled the injustice of Daesh (ISIS)," she said. "We were nearly dying, we had very scarce food and little fuel."

The haggard-looking woman, wearing several robes on top of each other to protect herself from the cold, said a roadside bomb went off as her family marched towards deliverance.

"It killed my husband and our child, whom he was carrying on his shoulders," said Umm Ahmed.

"After the explosion, I shouted from the top of a hill: 'Come IS, come and kill us'. But nobody came," she said, explaining that she carried her son's body the rest of the way but had to leave her husband's behind.

Hawijah, around 220 kilometres (140 miles) north of Baghdad, is one of the militants' stronghold but the noose is tightening around it, with Kurdish peshmerga forces holding positions north and east, and federal forces as well as tribal fighters inching closer from the south and west.

Most of the rescued civilians head to Al-Alam, a town north of Tikrit on the eastern bank of the Tigris which has become one of the main hubs in the Salaheddin province.

"We have received around 2,200 families over the past two months from Hawijah, Zawiyah and various neighbouring areas controlled by Daesh," mayor Laith Hamid al-Juburi said.

Witnesses and officials said the families need to pay ISIS about $400 per individual to leave. The men and teenagers are not allowed to at all and are targeted if they attempt to do so.

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