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Sectarian Violence Driving Iraqis from Home and Country

More than 100,000 displaced Iraqis registered for aid in the last month, and thousands more are fleeing the country for neighboring states, including Syria, due largely to sectarian violence. Two experts discuss the situation.

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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.

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