May 5, 2008
Pg. 5 U.N. agency worries return may be too soon and bloodshed could rise
By Charles Levinson, USA Today
BAGHDAD — One year ago, Sahba Shukry hid her tears from her daughter as the family fled their home in Baghdad's violence-racked Saidiya neighborhood.
When they returned home last month, the only tears in the family came from her daughter Sama, 3. The little girl was impatient because her mother was too busy hugging neighbors and downing celebratory glasses of orange slush to help unpack Sama's toys.
"Your toys will stay unpacked this time," Shukry, 31, told her daughter, who was tugging crankily at the folds of her dress. "We're done moving around."
The Shukrys are one among many Iraqi families who, emboldened by the fall in sectarian violence since last year's U.S. troop increase and a cease-fire by a Shiite militia, have returned to homes they left behind. The number of returnees may be growing, although it represents a small percentage of the more than 5 million Iraqis who have fled their homes since the war began in 2003.
According to the latest figures available from the Iraqi government, about 30,000 Iraqis had returned home through March.
Other Iraqis have returned home without registering with the government, according to the International Medical Corps, a non-profit organization working in Iraq. "Many more Iraqis have returned home than the government realizes," says Agron Ferrati, IMC's director in Baghdad.
The United Nations refugee agency has urged Iraqis not to return home yet, fearing the government would be unable to absorb a massive influx of people or guarantee their safety. A recent uptick in violence as the Iraqi government battles Shiite militias has contributed to a sense that progress on security is fragile.
The recent clashes have not reignited the violence between Sunnis and Shiites that tore apart so many of Baghdad's religiously mixed neighborhoods starting in 2006. Relations between the two sects continue to improve, if slowly. Many Iraqis are so eager to return home — in some cases because they have run out of money after years of moving around — they take their safety into their own hands.
In Saidiya, an upper-middle-class district that was once a model of coexistence between Sunnis and Shiites, 525 families have returned to their homes in recent weeks. An additional 6,000 families have turned in applications, says Ali Amery, the president of an unofficial, newly established neighborhood council that has taken charge of throwing out sectarian militias and restoring order.
In front of the neighborhood grocery store in Saidiya, workers unload panes of glass to rebuild storefronts. An Iraqi army battalion composed of both Sunnis and Shiites has members stationed on nearly every street.
"I am swamped with people wanting to return to their homes," says Amery, locking his office door to give himself a moment's respite.
When the sectarian fighting peaked in Saidiya last year, only 300 families remained, Amery says. "It was a ghost town except for the gunmen," he says.
Dozens of colored folders are piled high on Amery's desk, each one containing the deeds, affidavits and other documents of a displaced family hoping to reclaim its home. That Amery, a private citizen, processes the information reveals a larger problem that may prevent more Iraqis from resuming their lives.
The government has an office, the Ministry of Migration and Displaced People, that is supposed to formally process the applications of Iraqi refugees and distribute the $800 per family that has been promised to help Iraqis settle back into their homes.
The ministry is subject to the same sectarian rivalries that compelled so many Iraqis to flee the country in the first place. The ministry's news media adviser, Haidar al-Mussawi, criticized his fellow Shiites for discriminating against Sunni refugees.
"A Sunni woman came in here to apply for compensation, and someone tore up her file right in front of her eyes," al-Mussawi said. "When I asked them why, they said it was because she is Sunni. This place is sectarian to the core."
Abdel Karim Dahash, 51, a chemistry professor at Baghdad University, moved back into his home in the Adhamiya neighborhood in January without official help.
"Dealing with the ministry would only have caused me problems," Dahash says.
The challenges of coming home are daunting. When the Shukrys returned, they found broken windows and busted doors, and some of their furniture had been stolen. In other cases, families have found squatters living in their homes.
The Shukrys rediscovered the neighborly spirit they say once distinguished Baghdad. On the day the family moved back in, Iraqi soldiers escorted the Shukrys to their home and helped them unload dozens of suitcases and garbage bags that held their possessions.
Neighbors swarmed the family's front garden. Om Zakariya, an elderly woman, shuffled on arthritic legs into the Shukrys' kitchen, wielding a broom and dustpan.
Six months ago, Zakariya's was the only family here. Now, only two homes remain empty on her street, she said.
"Our families are returning, our neighbors are returning!" she shouted. "Why is everybody standing around? We need to help them clean up."