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NEW: Up to 84,000 people may have fled Falluja since May 23, UNHCR says

The current drive to clear the city of Falluja of ISIS has created a humanitarian crisis

CNN  — 

“We were living like kings,” Yaqin Habash told me. “Now we’re sitting on iron.”

Yaqin, a resident of Qaraqosh, a Christian town east of the Iraqi city of Mosul, was sharing the evening meal with his wife and son in their bare tent in what was once a public park in Erbil, in the north of the country. As Yaqin spoke, his wife sat by his side, weeping silently.

They fled Qaraqosh when ISIS militants came to town.

“They stole my son’s tractor, they stole 50 tonnes of barley and wheat. They stole everything, everything I worked for my entire life, gone in an instant,” he said.

People become refugees, or internally displaced persons to use the sterile terminology of the modern world, for many different reasons, but they all share the same deep sense of total loss. Suddenly, for reasons often way beyond their control, they must give up everything that constitutes life – friends, community, home, possessions, jobs, school – and flee to what they hope is safer ground.

Millions driven from homes

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2015 Iraq’s unending conflicts had driven 4.4 million people from their homes, and a further half a million into exile.

That number has only grown since then, with humanitarian agencies estimating that nearly 14,000 families (up to 84,000 individuals) may have left Falluja and surrounding areas since a government offensive to retake the city began on May 23, according to the UNHCR.

U.N.: ‘Race against time’ to save thousands of refugees

Tens of thousands of children have been caught up in the fighting.

But the safer ground they flee to is barren and bleak, like the camp for people who fled Falluja we visited a few days ago. The scorching wind blows dust and plastic bags between the rows of sand-encrusted tents.

Refugee crisis: Full coverage

Not a tree nor a bush nor a blade of grass relieves this monochrome tableau. No birds fly overhead. There is nothing for them here. The monotony is broken only by columns of black smoke rising on the horizon to the north, from what was their hometown, now a battle ground.

Hamid Abid fled, along with everyone in his village outside Falluja. For many people in camps like this one, the loss of all their worldly possessions is compounded by the loss, at least temporarily, of relatives now being held by Iraqi authorities wary that ISIS militants and sympathizers have mixed in among the civilians.

“We escaped, the entire village, more than 3,000 people, together in the night, with nothing but our clothing,” Hamid told me outside his tent.

“When we finally got out, the Hashd (the Hashd Al-Shaabi are predominantly Shia paramilitary units who fight alongside government troops) took us to their Mazraa Base, where they separated the men and teenage boys from the women, children and old people.”

Europe’s refugee crisis in pictures

Refugees interrogated

Men and teenage boys are held for what is called “security clearance.” Their names are checked against a data base, they’re interrogated, while masked informers from Falluja help pick out those they allege were ISIS supporters. This process, used incidentally by American forces while they were here, has resulted in abuse, torture and in some cases, summary executions.

They escaped ISIS, but Falluja’s children still suffer

Iraqi officials have launched an investigation, and vow those guilty of abusing or killing civilians will be punished.

As I walked around the camp, I was surrounded by women who filled my notebook with the names of those who had been taken into custody and now for all intents and purposes had disappeared. Every single family in the camp was missing sons, brothers and fathers.

In this remote, godforsaken patch of desert, camp residents are cut off from the world. There is no cell phone reception, no transportation, no electricity, no running water. Even if they had the means to go elsewhere, as residents of Anbar Province (where Fallujah is located) they can’t go to Baghdad without a special permit because the authorities are suspicious of those who once lived under ISIS.

Most of these families have lost everything.

“We have no money, no work, the children need medicine,” said Muntaha Ahmed, from Falluja. “Yes, we have clothing and there’s enough food, thank God, but we can’t stay like this forever.”

Fight for Falluja: Why it matters

Perhaps not forever, but it may be long before Muntaha can return home. Thousands of homes have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. Vast stretches of what was Falluja have been pummeled by bombardment and battle into a moonscape of concrete dust and rubble.

It’s the same fate shared by hundreds of thousands in this tormented land, where so many have lost everything and have no home to return to.

This is what Yaqin Habash meant when he said we are sitting on iron.

Falluja: The American and Iraqi ‘graveyard’