My memory of Falluja is of roads leading to the city, of fields of swaying date palm trees, which my Iraqi friend Thaier once told me represented the souls of the country’s people. “They are symbols of our hopes and dreams,” he said, pointing to the lush fields along the Euphrates, on a trip we took crossing Iraq east to west and north to south, in the late winter of 2003. It was shortly before the invasion that crushed all those hopes and dreams.
Today, more than a week into the US-backed Iraqi forces offensive on Falluja, that trip seems very long ago, in the distant land that once was Iraq. The road north of Falluja is a road of bleak war – of mortars, rockets and bullets. It is brown and gutted and veined in places with tunnels built by Islamic State during their occupation there for the past two years. An Australian farmer who came to Baghdad in 2010 told me, as he sifted the dirt in his hands, that the land was so “traumatised” by war it would take generations for nutritious food to grow.
While the US-backed Iraqi forces, aided by Shia militias (backed by Iran), are now pushing back Isis in Falluja, farming or any form of ordinary life has vanished. Along with Isis, there are also 50,000 civilians trapped in the centre of the city who might become (that horrible phrase) collateral damage.
They are vulnerable to mortar and rocket attacks, and terror: reports of Shia death squads roaming the streets conjure up memories of another heavy-handed military “clearing operation” – in Tikrit in 2015, when many civilians fled their homes as Isis positions were encircled and pounded.
Looming ahead is also another catastrophic humanitarian situation. The Norwegian Refugee Council says only 867 people from Falluja have managed to reach displacement camps since the fighting began on 21 May. Its Iraqi country director, Nasr Muflahi, says it doesn’t have enough water to give them once they finally get to safety. “How could we ever look Iraqis fleeing Falluja in the eye if we had to let them down just when they reach our camps?” he says.