Iraq's displaced struggle to restart their lives

NEAR NAHRAWAN, Iraq (Reuters) - Fadhlelah Daghel lives in a village without a name, unmarked on maps.

A girl looks at a U.S. helicopter flying overhead a refugee camp in Baghdad, September 27, 2007. REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud

The dusty settlement of squat mud-brick houses, huddled near an arterial road that cuts through the barren scrublands beyond Baghdad’s south-eastern fringe, is a place born out of bloodshed.

U.S. troops who patrol the area simply call it “Village 8”.

Daghel, her husband and six children fled here last year with dozens of other Shi’ite families from a small farming community near Balad Ruz, 60 km (40 miles) to the north, terrified that Sunni militants were preparing to slaughter them.

“We were attacked, so many times, by mortar bombs, random shootings. They threatened us, sent messages telling us to leave,” said Daghel, 33, as she stood baking flat, round loaves of bread in an earth-built kiln outside her home.

“My brother was killed, and then they attacked his funeral and killed one of my cousins, and kidnapped another.”

Iraq’s simmering sectarian tensions exploded into a savage cycle of bloodletting and revenge killings last year after militants blew up a revered Shi’ite shrine in Samarra.

Baghdad and the rural hinterlands to its north, east and south used to be a patchwork of mixed Shi’ite and Sunni communities. The violence unraveled the tapestry, setting off a vast internal migration as towns and villages splintered along sectarian lines and mixed communities became battlegrounds.

Scores of places like Village 8 have sprung up in Iraq as the displaced seek safe havens and the map of Iraq is redrawn.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said this week the number of internally displaced people now stands at 2.3 million -- almost double the 1.2 million displaced ahead of the Samarra bombing.

OCHA said an additional 60,000 people per month were now being displaced in Iraq -- a rate of 2,000 a day.


Past Baghdad’s south-eastern edge, the urban landscape gives way to a dusty plain, pockmarked with small, impoverished farming villages. It seems an unlikely battleground. But the area has been convulsed by sectarian bloodshed.

Just hours after the Samarra shrine attack in February 2006, 47 people were dragged from a convoy of vehicles, shot in the head, and dumped in a ditch near Nahrawan, north of Village 8. They had been traveling to a rally calling for national unity.

A week later, dozens of Sunni militants attacked Nahrawan at dusk, killing 25 Shi’ite workers at a brick factory and 4 at a nearby power station. As violence spread, people who had lived side by side for years became enemies. Many Sunnis had to flee.

The area is almost entirely Shi’ite now. In the hamlet of Saba Nissan, not far from Village 8, there are three mosques -- two Shi’ite and one Sunni. But now the Sunni mosque is closed. No Sunnis are left in the village to worship there.

U.S. soldiers say Shi’ite militiamen in the area have planted mines on the roads north to Diyala province -- not to attack American forces but to deter more raids by Sunni gunmen.

Troops at the nearby Forward Operating Base Hammer visit displaced Iraqis regularly to offer what help they can.

“What we are trying to accomplish is provide protection and security, and also providing some of the critical and essential services that these people need,” said Captain Patrick Moffett of the 3rd Infantry Division. Officers say the Iraqi government is also providing some assistance. But the villagers want more.

“Thank God, at least we are safe now,” Daghel said. “But now we need help, most of our men don’t have jobs.”

Aid groups say that many of Iraq’s internally displaced, the majority of whom come from around Baghdad, are unable to find jobs, get medical care or send their children to school.

Some rent lodging or move in with members of their extended family, while others have become squatters in public buildings without power, water or sewage service. Others live in tent cities or newly cobbled-together settlements like Village 8.

Families seeking refuge within Iraq are just one aspect of a larger problem. At least 2 million more Iraqis are believed to have fled to other countries, mainly Syria and Jordan.

Officials in Baghdad says that at least 46,000 families, encouraged by a sharp drop in violence in recent months, have returned to the capital from abroad, but aid officials characterize returns as more of a trickle than a tide, and say tighter visa rules for Iraqis abroad may be part of the reason.

Some residents of Village 8 talk of returning one day to their old homes. But most say there is no going back.

“What is left for me to go back to? There is nothing there for me now,” said Abdul-Razaq, a 60-year-old man in a traditional Arab headdress. “My Sunni neighbors did nothing to help me stay. So why would I go back there again?”

Additional reporting by Missy Ryan, editing by Peter Millership