IRIN and The Associated Press – 2004-12-23 09:40:09
Fallujah Residents Unsure When They Can Return
BAGHDAD (December 20, 2004) — Children play and sing songs around the tents they temporarily call home, as fathers queue to receive blankets from a local NGO.
More than two weeks after major fighting ended in Fallujah, about 60 km west of Baghdad, close to 200 families, amounting to more than 1,000 residents of the devastated city, are camped around a local mosque near Baghdad University.
A resident sheikh asks for the exact location not be named for security reasons. An additional estimated 2,000 are living in tent cities or with relatives or other families near mosques around Baghdad, according to figures from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS).
“You should not believe it when they say the fighting has stopped,” Nasser Mehssen, 48, told IRIN. “We are people from Fallujah, but we should also not be accused of being terrorists.”
US military officials in October called on Fallujah residents to turn over Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was said to be hiding among insurgent groups. While al-Zarqawi has not been found, US troops in Fallujah discovered numerous caches of weapons and evidence of a network that may be linked to him, including houses where kidnapped foreigners were held.
But there is no electricity or water now in Fallujah and many houses have been destroyed. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi recently announced that some people could start returning home to assess the damage as soon as this week.
US officials have announced plans to give ID cards to residents that include fingerprints and retina scans, but so far only a few people have received the cards — mostly aid workers and interim government officials going in and out of the city.
“The situation is still unstable. Security is still fluctuating all the time,” Jamal al-Karbuli, secretary general of the IRCS, told IRIN. “It can be calm one minute but 15 minutes later you have to run and hide because of gunfire and worse.”
If heads of households go home, they’ll just be arrested anyway, the sheikh told IRIN, declining to be named. “This is dreaming, if they think we can go back,” the sheikh said. “They detained all of the men from 15 to 50 – how can people like me go back?”
A woman displaced by the fighting thought her family would never go back. She asked if there was any way for the interim government or aid agencies to make alternative housing options available.
“Renting housing is too expensive in Baghdad now and our husbands are unemployed since we had to leave,” Zainab Hassam, 34, told IRIN.
Virtually all of Fallujah’s estimated 200,000 people displaced by the fighting are also still living in temporary conditions in places such as Saklawiya, Habbaniya and Germa near Fallujah. Most of those areas are considered too dangerous for foreigners to go without being embedded with the US Marines in the area.
“We take them food, water, blankets – our most important focus is on the areas around Fallujah,” said Abdul Hamid Salim, an information officer at the IRCS.
One of the biggest potential problems will be the time it takes to make the identification cards, al-Karbuli said. Based on the amount of time it took him to get processed for a card, it would take a year for every resident to receive one, he claimed.
“It took me 20 minutes to go through the procedure to get one,” al-Karbuli said. “How will they do this for all of the people who live there?”
On the positive side, an Iraqi committee of government officials is working to get water and electricity working again and the schools and hospitals re-opened, al-Karbuli said.
IRCS workers did not go into Fallujah for almost a week after deciding to leave following an incident in which US Marines found and held some men they described as being “military-aged males” at its headquarters.
Young men who are in the city to guard their houses are not fighters, al-Karbuli said. He said he is unclear if such guards need aid or not.
Under the Geneva Conventions, however, such people are considered to be civilians if they are in civilian dress and don’t carry weapons, al-Karbuli said. At the same time, US forces are saying such “military-aged males” could be insurgents, he said.
Fallujah Residents Begin to Return, with Compensation
Associated Press/Boston Globe
BAGHDAD (December 21, 2004) — Residents of the devastated city of Fallujah will begin returning to their homes later this week in several stages, and each family will be compensated for damages caused by recent fighting between US troops and insurgents, Iraq’s government said yesterday.
A statement issued after a Cabinet meeting said the first returns will start Thursday to the city’s western neighborhood of Andalus. Iraqi media will later announce the names of the other neighborhoods open for the returnees, it added.
“We have removed all explosives and mines left behind by the terrorists. Special units from different ministries are working to repair water and sewage networks in Fallujah,” the statement quoted Minister of Industry Hajim al-Hassani as saying.
Most of the city’s 250,000 residents had fled before the US-led invasion Nov. 8 to rid Fallujah of insurgents. Thousands living in camps outside the city have been clamoring to go home, even though many of their houses have been destroyed.
Hassani said the city has been supplied with food, drinking water, and fuel to last until life gets back to normal.
Each family will get immediate financial aid of $100, he said, and another financial aid worth $500 later.
The minister added that residents whose homes were damaged will get at least $2,000 and up to $10,000.
Although it has been relatively quiet in recent days, fierce clashes last week left seven US Marines dead, delaying plans to return civilians to the city 40 miles west of Baghdad.
The government statement said returnees will be met at checkpoints, where they will be instructed on how to proceed into the city. It added that carrying weapons will be strictly prohibited and that Iraqi troops, supported by multinational forces, will be in charge of security.
Residents will be given identification badges that they must wear at all times. They will not initially be allowed to travel into the city in their cars.
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