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Sectarian Violence Driving Iraqis from Home and Country

December 28, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: As the Iraqi government confirmed today, violence between Iraqis has created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Some leave mixed Sunni and Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad to live in sectarian enclaves elsewhere in Iraq; others depart for Lebanon and Jordan; and, by far, the greatest number have gone to Syria.

We begin with a report on several who’ve made that trip. It’s narrated by Jonathan Moore of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN MOORE, ITV News Correspondent: The south end of Haifa Street, which runs down the West Bank of the Tigris, is a no-go zone, unless you’re an insurgent. This is the top end, where the exodus starts for those fleeing war in Babylon.

Before the war, it was Saddam’s enemies who’d fled; then, it was his supporters. Now, a fresh wave of refugees is joining the 4 million Iraqis already in exile, the middle class on the run from violent sectarian purges. And the trickle is becoming a flood.

Issa (ph), a travel agent, says his company alone is handling 50 refugee families a day, most heading for Amman or Damascus, too dangerous to stay.

“We’re off to Syria,” this bus driver says. No one’s actually counted how many have left, but the most conservative estimate is that more than half-a-million Iraqis have fled to Syria, most since Shia and Sunni Muslims started killing each other in earnest this year.

IRAQI WOMAN (through translator): I’m leaving for Syria, because we’ve had it with this place. We’re fed up. My son was an officer in the new Iraqi army; he was murdered and thrown in the river. And yesterday, two men were killed in our neighborhood.

IRAQI MAN (through translator): Our neighborhood’s really dangerous. It’s not safe enough to let our women and kids walk out onto the street. There’s always explosions or gun battles going on. Who’s going to fix that, then? The government won’t; people are dying like chickens in a slaughterhouse.

JONATHAN MOORE: In what used to be a mixed neighborhood on the other side of the river, Afrah Shaheed Jasim, a hairdresser, housewife and mum, is straightening, curling and blow-drying for the very last time in her own little salon in Baghdad.

This part of town’s gone hard-line Shia now, run by men with guns who frown on glamour girls, even on Wedding Day. Hers, a typical secular family, Afrah is Shia, her husband is Sunni. They have two boys, Ghaith and Khaled, and she fears for them.

“It’s not safe indoors, let alone out,” she says. A perverse nostalgia has taken root, for the “good old days” under the tyrant.

AFRAH SHAHEED JASIM, Iraqi (through translator): Life here is great, at least it was. My big problem is the lack of security. Business was good. I’ve been hairdressing for 15 years, and I’ve managed to buy a house and a car.

But the one thing I don’t have is security: not for me; not for my husband; or for my kids, not for anyone. I’ve been threatened to my face. A man came up to me as I was leaving the house. He told me to stop working or I’d lose my sons. I asked him, “Why?” He said it would just be better if I did. That was a month ago; I told my husband to leave the country.

JONATHAN MOORE: He did as he was told. He went to Syria, and now she’s packing up, too, driven out by horror, fear and discomfort. The boys don’t get out much, Baghdad no longer the kind of place where your mum yells at you to go outside and play.

Ghaith Hashim Ali is 13 and wants to be a doctor.

GHAITH HASHIM ALI (through translator): I remember before the war I used go out and play with other boys outside, but after the war we stopped because of all the explosions. I’m really happy to be leaving Iraq and going to live in Syria.

Everyone loves their homeland, but our country’s become un-loveable, and that’s why everyone’s leaving. Everything is bad.

JONATHAN MOORE: Ghaith is going to take with him his PlayStation, his telly, his skateboard, football, and red remote-controlled car. Ten-year-old Khaled says he wants to be an architect. One of his school friends was killed.

KHALED HASHIM ALI (through translator): A lot of children are kidnapped. I don’t know all their names. The kidnappers demand loads of money or they slaughter them. Why do they do this to them? They’re only children.

This is the one I told you had died, this one here. He was killed with his whole family. This is the one whose kidnappers wanted 3 million dinars. They both were my friends; they’re all my friends, and I love them.

JONATHAN MOORE: Upstairs, his mother, Afrah, is also feeling nostalgic. The precious things are coming with her; the rest, she’s mostly sold now, the car, the air-conditioner, although it’s not a seller’s market.

Afrah is Baghdad born and bred. She really doesn’t want to go, but she leaves in the morning.

AFRAH SHAHEED JASIM (through translator): I’m leaving for the sake of my children. I want my sons to be raised in a place far from horror, destruction and blood. Iraq was our pride and joy. We can only pray that one day it will be again.

JONATHAN MOORE: They hired a big four-wheel drive for the long and dangerous drive to Damascus. “I feel so excited,” Khaled says. “Finally, we’re off.”

Afrah, still morose, forced to abandon all she’s built over so many years, wishing they could just be a happier family in a happier land.

Syria, two weeks later. After Baghdad, Damascus is one big fun-fare. The Jasim family reunited, back with dad again. Out, together, at night, having fun, simple, forgotten pleasures, forbidden fruit in Baghdad.

Since this was filmed, Afrah’s got a job in a hairdressing salon downtown. She hopes to buy the business soon. Her husband, Hashim, is now driving a taxi between Damascus and Baghdad. The money is good.

The boys are settled in a Syrian school, their old life the stuff of nightmares.

'It's only going to continue'

Dana Graber
International Organization for Migration
People are leaving because of an increase in violence, a dramatic increase that we've seen, sectarian violence primarily being the impetus for this. And people mostly just fear for their lives.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the refugee situation, I'm joined by Dana Graber, an official of the International Organization from Migration. She's responsible for monitoring internal refugees inside Iraq and is based in Amman, Jordan.

And Kristele Younes of Refugees International, a humanitarian organization, she recently returned from a trip to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to assess the needs of Iraqis who have fled their homeland.

And, Kristele Younes, let me begin with you. What's the best estimate on how many people have left Iraq since the war began?

KRISTELE YOUNES, Refugees International: Well, at the moment, the U.N. estimates that about 1.8 million people have fled Iraq since 2003. Most of them are in the region still. About 700,000 of them are in Syria, and about the same number in Jordan. And there are a hundred thousand more in the region in Iran, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Turkey.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the pace of departure crept up as the war has continued since 2003?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Absolutely. And with the violence showing no signs of slowing down, it's only going to continue. In Syria alone, there are over 40,000 Iraqis that are coming every month still.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Dana Graber, how many people have left their homes inside Iraq and are now somewhere else inside the country?

DANA GRABER, International Organization for Migration: Well, since the bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra on February 22, the International Organization for Migration has tracked over 57,000 families who have fled their homes within Iraq.

Now, if we look at this compared to 2003 to 2005, which was about 27,000 families, it's a great increase and quite alarming.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any one reason why people are leaving now, as opposed to in '03 and '04?

DANA GRABER: Yes. People are leaving because of an increase in violence, a dramatic increase that we've seen, sectarian violence primarily being the impetus for this. And people mostly just fear for their lives.

This might be a result of being threatened by militias, being threatened by insurgents. It might be because of armed violence. Some people are receiving texts through their cell phones that are threatening their lives.

They're seeing their neighbors, family members being abducted even, and even assassinated. And so they're quickly leaving because they fear for their lives and for their families.

Welcoming and absorbing refugees

Kristele Younes
Refugees International
At first, the entire Middle East was pretty welcoming of these refugees. But, of course, as the numbers increase, the strain on the countries that are receiving them is increasing, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Kristele Younes, is there a difference, depending on where you go, of the kind of reception you're going to get when you leave the country?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Absolutely. At first, the entire Middle East was pretty welcoming of these refugees. But, of course, as the numbers increase, the strain on the countries that are receiving them is increasing, as well.

Syria is pretty much the only country that has kept its borders entirely open to Iraqis.

In Jordan, Iraqis can still go across the border, but there are severe restrictions now. For instance, Jordan has now issued a regulation that keeps young men, aged 18 to 35, away. They cannot come to Jordan anymore.

This, of course, separates families, and this is a trend that we don't want to see continue.

RAY SUAREZ: Jordan and Syria are not wealthy countries. Do they receive aid from third parties to help sustain those hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now inside their borders?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Well, this is certainly one of our major concerns, is that Jordan and Syria are pretty much dealing with this problem alone. And those Iraqi refugees are only adding to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees that those countries are already hosting.

It is absolutely necessary that the international community shares the burden and assists those countries in absorbing these refugees.

RAY SUAREZ: Have people who have gone to Jordan in particular told you that the tone, the welcome, the level of comfort has changed since there was a terrorist attack in Amman itself?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Yes, absolutely; the terrorist attack has changed a lot of things. Of course, three Iraqi men blew themselves up.

However, another problem is the rise of the prices in Amman. Amman is not a large city and is now hosting 700,000 Iraqis. It's a third of the population.

Real estate prices have gone up; schools are overburdened; hospitals are overburdened. And Jordanians are not that welcoming anymore. They're seeing all this happening. It is not a rich country. They have a lot of poor people themselves, and they see this very much as a threat.

Refugee profiles

Dana Graber
International Organization for Migration
[U]nemployment and a lack of shelter are the two main concerns that we are hearing from people who are forced to flee their homes. And this is in addition to needing food, needing water.

RAY SUAREZ: Dana Graber, is there a difference in profile for the people who are leaving their homes but staying inside the country? Are they less well-off, less well-connected? What are the reasons that they give for trying to make it in another part of Iraq?

DANA GRABER: Well, for the most part, those that have the financial means to leave the country are doing so, and those that do not are being forced to stay within the country. And they tend to be moving from mixed communities to more homogeneous communities.

So we are finding that the communities, the host communities, tend to be welcoming and somewhat tolerant. Although these communities are facing the same problems that Kristele just mentioned outside of Iraq -- with crowded schools, lack of resources, such as health services, lack of food and water, increasing of rental prices -- and so, if this continues, we might find that the host communities are not as welcoming.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, given those difficulties that you just ran down in the host communities, how are people managing day-to-day? Is there work? Is there a functioning economy when you move to a small, provincial city and away from Baghdad?

DANA GRABER: Actually, unemployment and a lack of shelter are the two main concerns that we are hearing from people who are forced to flee their homes. And this is in addition to needing food, needing water.

I think, especially with the shelter, we're finding a lot of problems, where people are being forced to move into abandoned buildings or they are making makeshift homes out of mud bricks or tin.

They move in with families and friends when they are able to. Iraq is a very familial society. And so, when they can, they do so. But these are very crowded conditions.

And then those that have the financial ability do rent, but, like I mentioned, the rising rental prices and the ongoing displacement is making this extremely difficult for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the strong allegiance to ethnic group, to clan, to tribe help ease that transition, when you move away from somewhere you've been settled to some new part of the country?

DANA GRABER: Absolutely. We're seeing that, for example, Shias tend to be moving to Shia communities in the south, and Sunnis tend to be moving to Sunni communities in the center of Iraq. However, we even see within Baghdad people moving from one neighborhood to another, where they do have those connections, whether that be ethnic or religious, tribal, familial.

RAY SUAREZ: And is this process accomplishing on the ground what partition threatened to do? You know, it's been one of the suggestions made for a future Iraq, three separate and self-governing provinces. Is this becoming an established fact through the creation of refugees?

DANA GRABER: Well, what we're seeing is that people are fleeing these mixed communities, and they are moving to more homogeneous communities, which is creating a polarization within Iraq.

Refusing to return

Kristele Younes
Refugees International
Usually, people cannot wait to return home. In this particular instance, the level of violence is so extreme and so indiscriminate that people are absolutely terrified.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Kristele Younes, let me come back to you. Is there a sense among any number of these refugees that there is not a possibility of going home anytime soon? Are they really trying to make a permanent change? Or do they consider themselves sojourning, just in these host countries for a time?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Well, this is one of the major, major problems of this refugee crisis, is that most of the refugees we have interviewed refuse to go back to Iraq ever. And this is very rare in a refugee crisis.

Usually, people cannot wait to return home. In this particular instance, the level of violence is so extreme and so indiscriminate that people are absolutely terrified.

They were personally targeted; their families were personally targeted. And they believe that the tribal system inside Iraq is such that, even if there is ever to be peace, they will still continue to be targeted, and their families with them.

So they view very much the situation of displacement as permanent, and most of them wish to be resettled to Europe and to North America, which makes this very much a global crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: And finally, quickly, Dana Graber, do the people that you've been in contact with inside Iraq think of themselves as having permanently moved or just sojourning where they are hoping to return one day home?

DANA GRABER: Well, it really depends where they're being displaced to. If they are fleeing to more stable communities -- for example, those that are fleeing to the south of the country -- they tend to tell us that they are planning to stay where they're at.

For those that are fleeing to areas that are still experiencing a lot of violence, they hope to return home. However, as time goes on, and these people are displaced for longer and longer periods from their homes, and their homes are occupied or destroyed, they are changing their minds, and they are planning on settling where they are.