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There Are More Than 60,000 People Camped Outside Of Fallujah

Despite the Iraqi army's supposed recapture of the city, a mass exodus has taken aid workers by surprise.

Posted on June 21, 2016, at 6:32 p.m. ET

Since the Iraqi army's push to retake the city of Fallujah from ISIS began, more than 60,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, straining an already taxed humanitarian system.

Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Fallujah first fell into the hands of ISIS in January 2014, the group's first major victory in a run that would leave them controlling large swaths of Iraq.

Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Fallujah has seen some of the most intense fighting between insurgents and the U.S. in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, and its Sunni-majority population made it an important first target for ISIS. The Iraqi military and allied militias began a campaign to retake the city in May, with the U.S. providing airstrikes in support.

Four days ago, the Iraqi government declared mission accomplished in the attempt to seize control of the city, flying the federal flag over a municipal building.

Hadi Mizban / AP

However, the U.S. poured cold water over that statement on Tuesday, saying the Iraqi government controlled, at best, one-third of the city.

"The rest of the city remains contested and we will continue to support the government of Iraq in eliminating ISIL from Fallujah," Defense Department spokesman Matthew Allen said, adding that the effort "has been and will continue to be a difficult fight."

Despite the liberation campaign, things have only gotten worse for Fallujah's residents in recent weeks. According to the United Nations, 60,000 people escaped the city over a period of just three days last week.

Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP / Getty Images

All told, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimates that more that 85,000 people have evacuated Fallujah since military operations began in May. And the recent influx of internally displaced people means that "$17.5 million is urgently needed to meet their immediate needs."

Tents are in short supply, along with basically everything else people who've left everything behind could need.

Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Aid workers and the Iraqi government were surprised by the mass exodus from the city, which left people sleeping outside and scrabbling for bottled water.

"They have been eating rotten dates and animal feed – and drinking from the river, which is undrinkable," Karl Schembri of the Norwegian Refugee Council told Al Jazeera.

“I wish a mortar shell had landed on my house in Fallujah and killed me,” one evacuee told the Washington Post. “It’s better than living like this.”

Humanitarian workers also worry about the health conditions in the makeshift camps that have been set up to accommodate the surge.

Haidar Mohammed Ali / AFP / Getty Images

Low immunization rates and lacking hygiene mean that outbreaks of disease are highly possible, Ala Alwan, the World Health Organization's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, told reporters during a visit to Baghdad.

“I have five children. When ISIL came to the area we couldn’t leave because three of my children are very ill," a widow identified as Nagham who escaped from Fallujah told the International Organization for Migration.

Moadh Al-dulaimi / AFP / Getty Images

"After the recent military operation many families escaped by foot, taking back roads," she continued. "I fled with two of my children and had to leave my other three behind with their grandmother and relatives; they were planning to leave by car. I have not heard from them since then. We are in urgent need of supplies and assistance."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.