James Palmer / SF Chronicle Foreign Service – 2007-10-17 09:08:02
BAGHDAD (October 17, 2007) —The little girl with dark, mournful eyes lugged an empty blue bucket along a dusty path in this impromptu refugee camp for displaced persons.
Every four days, government trucks deliver water to 25,000 Shiite families living on a sandlot behind the Shamiya psychiatric hospital in the Shiite district of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad. Most have been driven from their homes by Sunni extremists during the past year, and the number of displaced people is spiraling out of control, according to the relief agency the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. A study by the group shows there are 2 million displaced people inside Iraq, with nearly 1 million in Baghdad, or 1 out of 6 city residents.
Indeed, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 4.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the U.S. invasion in 2003, with 1.9 million in the first eight months of 2007. About 2 million Iraqis already have fled the country as refugees, mostly to neighboring Syria and Jordan. The situation is particularly harsh for women and children under 12, who, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society report, account for 72 percent of the displaced.
In what some analysts see as a major policy shift, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office recently agreed to recognize the above figures rather than the much lower numbers issued by the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, according to Said Hakki, president of the relief group. Some observers say the move is a tacit admission that the government’s 8-month-old security plan, which coincided with the U.S. troop increase, hasn’t alleviated vast migration across the country.
A rare tour by a foreign journalist through one of five displacement camps in Sadr City shows the grim accommodations for many people forced to flee their homes.
Ibtihal Tama – eight months pregnant, penniless and mostly dependent on her new neighbors for food, money and security – clutched her 3-year-old daughter, Aia, as she spoke to a reporter inside a spartan one-room makeshift home while her son, Amar, 2, played outside.
Tama, 27, says her husband, a 29-year-old police officer named Salah Odah, was shot dead at a checkpoint in April by unknown gunmen. Four months later, insurgent mortars devastated her village of Saba Ebker, 12 miles outside of Baghdad. The next day, Tama grabbed her children and a handful of belongings and left her modest home for Sadr City.
Even though she lives in a hut made of sheet metal and plastic tarp, with no running water and electricity for only one or two hours a day via jerry-rigged wires, Tama sounded almost thankful that she had finally found security. Sadr City, the largest Shiite neighborhood, also has escaped a crime wave that has hit many Baghdad areas.
“This is the only safe place we have to live,” Tama said. “Everyone looks out for one another.”
Upon arrival, men in the camp volunteered to finish building her one-room hut. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society gives her a small amount of food and basic household items monthly, while the government provides only water.
“Sometimes they (camp residents) give me 5,000 Iraqi dinars (about $4); sometimes they bring vegetables,” said Tama, who wears a head-to-toe black burqa.
Despite such hardships, most displaced in the camp agree with Tama that they are fortunate to have escaped sectarian strife – for now.
Mohammed Abed Hussein, 40, abandoned his lush fields of tomatoes and eggplants 35 miles north of Baghdad in the combative Diyala province. As part of the U.S. troop increase, American and Iraqi troops have staged an offensive there to flush out Islamic militants and seize control of the region. Residents caught in the cross fire are often forced to abandon their homes.
After a lifetime of working the land, Hussein finds himself living on a barren patch of soil in the camp with no means of support other than his 17-year-old son, Jassam, who earns about $8 daily as a day laborer. “It’s very little, and he doesn’t have the work every day,” Hussein said.
Abdul Rada Ali, 42, brought his wife and three children to the camp after a death threat appeared in a text message on his cellular phone at his home in Diyala province.
“They told me to leave within three days or they would kill me and my entire family,” Ali said. “We left the next day.”
A veteran of the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s, Ali earns about $200 monthly as a day laborer despite an injury to his right hand in-curred in 1987 while fighting at the front. Though he is destitute, Ali says “life is more normal here” than in his home village.
But any sense of normalcy is calibrated by Baghdad standards.
The camp lies in a no-man’s-land between districts controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, and by a U.S. military outpost, which is less than a mile away. Though no armed group has raided the camp, residents say mortars whistle overhead and crash nearby with frightening regularity.
“The people are in despair,” said Red Crescent’s Hakki said of Sadr City’s displaced. “Their living conditions are pathetic and desperate.”
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