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A sense of claustrophobia pervades Iraq's Fallujah

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 22/10/2017
Since Fallujah was retaken by the Iraqi army in June 2016, it has witnessed the steady return of some 300,000 people [Sofia Barbarani/ Al Jazeera] © Provided by Al Jazeera Since Fallujah was retaken by the Iraqi army in June 2016, it has witnessed the steady return of some 300,000 people [Sofia Barbarani/ Al Jazeera]

Fallujah, Iraq - Ibrahim recalls the anguished face of the patient who walked into his pharmacy, seeking anticoagulants to treat a blood clot that had formed in his brain. 

"[He] begged me for the medicine, but I didn't have it because the checkpoint was closed," said Ibrahim, who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym for fear of repercussions. "It was so hard. I saw him crying as he left."

Access into and out of the Iraqi city of Fallujah through al-Suqoor checkpoint has been a major source of delays and frustration for local residents. 

Al-Suqoor straddles the main highway between Fallujah and Baghdad. Vehicles wait on the long, dusty road in hopes that Iraqi forces will let them through - but these hopes are often in vain. Residents of the Sunni-majority city say that they are frequently discriminated against by forces working for Iraq's Shia government, in addition to the Shia militias aiding them.

Ibrahim, who has been a pharmacist for 16 years, said that the stringent screening at al-Suqoor checkpoint has become his primary obstacle in transporting medication from Baghdad to Fallujah. Swift access to the city is essential to keep costly medications from spoiling in the summer heat.

"Some medicine needs to be transported in coolers, so it's difficult to keep it cool [if the vehicles are waiting] at the checkpoint for one to three days," said Ibrahim, who says that he has lost some $5,000 worth of medicine due to the protracted security checks. Other business owners told Al Jazeera that they had also been held up for days by the security checks.

At the same time, there is an increase in demand for essential medicines, said Altaf Musani, the Iraq representative with the World Health Organization - partly because residents living under the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) had limited access to medical facilities.

"As they've come out [of ISIL-held areas] and services have become available, people have been seeking medical care. There are also increased health conditions ... There's an overload," Musani told Al Jazeera.

Doctors and patients are not the only ones suffering: Butchers in Fallujah's main bazaar complain that they are unable to transport as many sheep from Baghdad to Fallujah as they have in the past, unless they bribe checkpoint security. A gold seller told Al Jazeera that he used to go to Baghdad twice a month to buy gold, but now he only goes once every two months.

Since Fallujah was retaken by the Iraqi army in June 2016, it has witnessed the steady return of some 300,000 people. But more than two years of ISIL occupation, coupled with structural damage by government shelling, has severely damaged its key infrastructure.

The United Nations has been working to rebuild the main hospital, but it is still only operating at around 30 percent of its capacity, with some floors inaccessible.

"It's a big burden on the hospital, [because] facilities are growing slower than the amount of population coming back," said the hospital's director-general, Ahmed Abd Jubbar.

While Jubbar acknowledged that the hospital suffers from a shortage of medical tools and medications, he does not blame the government: "The Ministry of Health supplies medicine. There is a shortage, but it's getting better. [The Ministry] is trying to do its job," he told Al Jazeera. 

But in a separate wing of the visibly damaged hospital, a 39-year-old surgeon, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that government "security checks" have contributed to a stark shortage of drugs. Doctors at private clinics cited similar concerns, raising doubts over the health ministry's claims of supply shortages and blaming checkpoint administrators for exacerbating the region's health crisis.

Asmaa Usama al-Ani, the head of the Anbar Provincial Council's health committee, said that her group has been in direct contact with the health ministry to enable a faster delivery of drugs to Fallujah and Anbar.

"It's our biggest problem in the province," she said of the checkpoint. "There are only two drivers with authorisation to go in and out of Anbar [with medications]. Yesterday, it took them seven hours to get to Fallujah. This has happened as a result of sectarian issues. Anbar is the biggest Sunni province and the government thinks it's a source of terrorism; that's why they punish the province."

Al Jazeera was unable to reach an official with Iraq's defence ministry for comment by the time of publication.

For now, neither the liberation from ISIL nor an array of UN-funded projects - including the reconstruction of damaged buildings and the rehabilitation of water and electricity - has lessened the sense of claustrophobia in Fallujah.

Qassim Mohammad's 70-year-old father suffers from kidney failure, a condition that can become fatal if left untreated. Mohammad says that he spends upwards of $1,000 a month on his father, including on transport from the neighbouring town of Khalidiya, medication and dialysis.

The local hospital has been unable to provide his father with state-subsidised medicine, Mohammad says, but travelling to Baghdad for the required care is not an option. 

"My father can't handle waiting for two hours at the checkpoint," he said, standing next to his ashen-faced father. "Day after day, the checkpoints are getting harder to pass."

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