Sena Mohamed sits with her family in a room at the Al-Raha hotel, in the historic centre of Erbil, in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, but they are not here to sightsee.
She arrived last week with 28 members of her extended family, having fled their home in Anbar Province to escape fighting that broke out at the end of December among government troops, tribal leaders and Islamist insurgents.
Mohamed’s family is among an estimated 14,000 Iraqis who have crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the past week from in and around the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
While some are staying with family members, and those with savings are in hotels, a growing number are camping out in abandoned houses and semi-constructed buildings, the UN Refugee Agency has said.
“The situation is very bad in Fallujah,” Mohamed said, looking visibly tired and drained. “Because of the fighting, life has stopped there. Work has stopped. Food exists, but there isn’t very much of it.”
She added: “There was a bombing in a school in the city… The schools and colleges our children go to have shut… Our children are afraid because of the fighting and the bombing.”
She said she and her family paid 700,000 dinars (US$600) for a minibus to make two trips to bring them, and a few possessions, from Fallujah to Erbil. They are now paying 60,000 dinars ($50) per night for three rooms. She said she does not know how long they will be able afford to stay there.
Across the road at the Al Baghdad hotel, car mechanic Ahmed Jamil Jassim has a similar story. He and 17 relatives arrived this week from Germa, just outside of Fallujah.
“A shell landed 15m from my eight-year-old son, and he fainted,” he said. “I had to bring him round by splashing cold water on his face. We came with the clothes we are wearing. I only have a little bit of money from my garage in Fallujah… but when we finish this, we must go back.”
Dressed in a light tracksuit and thin coat offering little protection against the harsh winter, he said it was the fourth time since 2003 he and his family had been forced to leave Fallujah because of fighting.
“I want to go to a country where there are no bombs, no war and where there are no bombs on TV to frighten my son,” he said.
Waves of displacement
The sudden upsurge in violence in Anbar - Iraq’s largest province, which was at the heart of the insurgency against US troops - comes on the back of a bloody 2013 for the country, in which close to 8,000 civilians were killed in sectarian attacks.
No one is yet sure about the death toll from Fallujah or Ramadi, parts of which remain outside government control, but UN agencies and Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimate that as many as 70,000 have been displaced from and within Anbar in the past two weeks.
This latest wave adds to the existing 1.13 million people who were displaced inside Iraq during the 2006-2008 sectarian violence.
Already creaking under the strain of hosting an estimated 200,000 refugees from Syria, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is working with aid agencies to prepare a temporary holding camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) arriving from Anbar.
Fears of spreading violence
However, while the KRG is welcoming these IDPs for now, there are concerns that violence from Anbar could spread northwards. Save for a few minor incidents, the Kurdish north of Iraq has not seen the bombings and attacks that are everyday occurrences in other parts of the country.
Dindar Zebari, deputy minister at KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, said: “KRG has already been… safe haven for thousands of IDPs from all over Iraq. Recently Anbar IDPs have entered the KRG, and we have received them and accommodated them, but there [are] also security measures that we have to put in place - such as extra screenings.
“Security is something we will not compromise on. Fifteen thousand IDPs have entered, and I believe those numbers will increase.”
Zebari added: “This is a big responsibility, and it is definitely a concern for the KRG and for the local communities, and it will be a burden on the economy.
“We make sure at the checkpoints that we have enough [security] measures, and that takes more resources and budget for our police forces when you have this number of IDPs.”
For now aid agencies, are providing support for the new arrivals as best they can.
“Assessments are ongoing, and we’re trying to identify what the need is and where [the needs] are,” explained Nicholas Hill, operations officer with the International Organization for Migration in Iraq, which is leading on the response. He added that more funding may be required to meet the growing demands.