As humanitarian situation worsens, with hospital crippled by shelling, many complain that they cannot afford to pay bribes to leave city
Families fleeing Iraq’s central city of Fallujah say they have to pay up to $1,500 in bribes to guarantee their safe passage out of the city.
Parts of Fallujah, a city of some 300,000 that lies 70 kilometres west of the capital Baghdad, have been under control of Islamic State (IS) militants since last January, and residents say that the humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly.
As well as being occupied by IS fighters, the city has been encircled by the Iraqi army for over a year, as Baghdad’s forces attempt to throw off the militant chokehold over Fallujah.
The Iraqi army closed all roads leading into and out of the town last year – but residents warn that amid a growing crisis over resources, people are resorting to desperate measures to leave Fallujah.
Last week patients at the city’s main hospital, which is already suffering a dire lack of medication and resources, said it had become a target of sustained fighting for control of the town.
Fallujah Hospital has been hit on 35 occasions over the past year, doctors working there told Al-Jazeera, alleging that the Iraqi army has been shelling the town at random.
Some also complain that the sick and injured are not allowed to leave Fallujah to travel to nearby Baghdad for specialist treatment.
Doctors working at the hospital told local news site al-Muheet last November that there were no specialist doctors at the hospital and that “dozens” of patients had died since roads around the town were closed.
Amid ever-worsening conditions in the town, thousands of residents are attempting to flee, but must first get around the strict security measures.
“All points of entry and exit to the city are completely blocked with barbed wire and cement barricades, and anyone attempting to get close to the checkpoints risks being fired at by the armed forces,” according to a local resident who spoke to al-Araby al-Jadid.
Those locals who do risk the dangerous journey say they are asked to pay large bribes in order to leave the besieged city.
“The head of every family has to pay $500 to the army, $500 to the police and $500 to the volunteer forces in order to be able to pass through with his family.”
The Fallujah resident who spoke to al-Araby al-Jadid said he had paid a total of $1,500 in bribes, equivalent to more than a quarter of the annual household income for an average Iraqi household, to get himself and his family out of the town.
“The money is collected by people wearing masks,” he said, alleging that they were from Iraq’s official security services as well as the paramilitary forces who volunteered to fight IS after a call from Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah al-Sistani.
“Most families are unable to pay the amount that the checkpoints demand to get them out.”
Corruption has long plagued Iraq – a government committee announced this week the discovery of 3,200 instances of corruption in 2014, most of which took place under the administration of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Under the new premier, Haidar al-Abadi, corruption remains a key concern. A poll conducted earlier this month found that residents of Baghdad considered government fraud to be a bigger challenge than the security threat caused by IS.
Abadi used a speech last December to announce a "war" on corruption, which he said was "no less dangerous" than terrorism.
"Abadi has said that he wants the judiciary to deem crimes of corruption equivalent to terrorism," Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad told MEE.
"The feeling is that it will be easier to defeat IS than corruption".