‘The road smelled of dead bodies’: Iraqis fleeing Tal Afar tell of death in the desert

Published: 24th August 2017

Traumatized women and children fleeing Iraq's Tal Afar district have told Oxfam how people died walking for days through the desert in 50C heat to reach safety. One mother said the road they took to escape smelled of dead bodies while another said she feared her husband was dead as ISIS took him when they fled.

On Sunday, the Iraqi army launched a major offensive to retake Tal Afar, one of the last urban strongholds held by ISIS in Iraq. More than 30,000 people have already fled the city, according to the UN, and up to 40,000 remain in and around Tal Afar.

Oxfam’s Amy Christian met some of those fleeing Tal Afar in a screening site in Badush, around 60km east of the city, where Oxfam is supporting those that have fled: “The sound of children crying was deafening. Covered in dirt and incredibly thin, they have been through hell to get there. The families stayed very close to each other and the women held on tightly to young children and babies. Everyone looked extremely exhausted and clearly traumatized from their experience. After days walking in the blistering heat, they urgently need food, water and shelter.”

People also said they had run out of food in Tal Afar and had to escape during the night as ISIS was preventing them from fleeing.

Ahlam Ibrahim, who fled the village of Mzra’a near Tal Afar when bombing began, said: “We left because we were afraid of the airstrikes. We were so afraid for the children. The road was steep and rocky, and old people were dying. It was so hard to walk and the road smelled of dead bodies. I lost my voice because I was shouting at my children to stay with me. They were so scared.”

Nahida Ali*, also from Mzra’a, told how she walked for two days in the blistering heat with no water: “ISIS took my husband two days ago as we tried to escape. We wanted to leave a month ago but ISIS wouldn’t let us. If they saw a family leaving, they would take the men. We saw a lot of people killed; that’s why we were so afraid. We are worried they will kill my husband. My son won’t stop crying because ISIS took his father and we don’t know where he is.”

Oxfam is calling on the government of Iraq to ensure that civilians can reach safety and receive the help they urgently need. It is also calling on all parties to the conflict to avoid harming civilians who stay in the city, and to protect civilian areas and infrastructure – including avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide area affect.

Notes to editors

Oxfam is supporting those fleeing the fighting in Iraq with life-saving food and water both in camps and in communities that have been recently retaken and where families are seeking shelter.

Oxfam is working at the Badush screening site distributing kits with soap, nappies, underwear and sanitary towels to new arrivals, who are then redirected to a camp. The international agency is also assessing whether the needs of those fleeing the conflict are being addressed.

*Name has been changed

Contact information

Oxfam has in country spokespeople available.

Harriet Hernando on hhernando1@oxfam.org.uk / +447557 077 008