Recently Baghdad local Ammar al-Amiri found himself sadly watching labourers carrying his belongings out of his house - again.
Al-Amiri is a Sunni Muslim and originally from Baquba, in the province of Diyala, and he moved to Baghdad for the first time in 1996. His wife is a Shiite Muslim, originally from the mainly Shiite Muslim suburb of Baghdad now known as Sadr City. In 2006, during the years when Iraq was riven by sectarian violence, al-Amiri and his family moved back to Diyala.
But even there they weren’t safe from sectarian violence: Extremist fighters came to al-Amiri’s house and after learning the distinctively Shiite Muslim names of his sons, Karrar and Sajad, the militants gave the family two options: Leave the area or be killed.
At which stage the family moved back to the Shaab neighbourhood in Baghdad.
Now recent events in Iraq, which have increased tensions between the different religious and ethnic communities in the country, are forcing the al-Amiri family to move again. On July 3, members of a well known Shiite Muslim militia in Baghdad knocked on their door. Without even introducing themselves, their leader told al-Amiri: “You are still alive because of your wife. Otherwise we would have killed you without warning you. So now you must leave this place. And don’t ever come back.”
Al-Amiri works as a guard for an Iraqi judge and his employer has been able to find him and his family temporary accommodation in the extremely well-guarded Green Zone, which is also home to various politicians and to international embassies.
Al-Amiri’s story is far from the only one like this in multi-cultural Baghdad.
It wasn’t possible to meet Hamid al-Jibouri, another Baghdad resident who had to leave town as a result of sectarian pressure. Instead his wife, Abeer, told his story.
Abeer’s husband is Sunni Muslim while Abeer is Shiite. Her husband was kidnapped by a militia who took him from the restaurant where he works. Abeer used all of her contacts and asked many other influential Shiite Muslims to try and get her husband back safely.
“I found him unconscious in front of our house,” she told NIQASH, crying. “He had been tortured.”
The couple, who are in their early 30s, had met at university and they lived in the mainly Shiite Muslim neighbourhood of Abu Dshair in Baghdad, because Abeer wanted to stay there. “But his sect was never a problem for us,” she says. “His relationships with the people in this area were always good even though he was of a different sect.”
Hamid al-Jibouri was then forced to leave Baghdad and to return to his home town of Mosul, the northern city that was recently taken over by fighters from the extremist Sunni Muslim militia known as the Islamic State, or IS. Al-Jibouri was unable to take his wife and his sons, Mohammed and Hussein, with him. “His family told us not to go there because people in Mosul know I am from a different sect,” Abeer explains. “They were worried that the militants from the IS group would try to kill me or my children because of this.”
Abeer was sobbing while she told her story and her mother intervened to halt the interview; she felt her daughter was losing control of her emotions.
Mohammed Mahdi, a Shiite Muslim by birth in his mid-20s, tells a similar story. When he married his wife, a Sunni Muslim, she told him that she wanted to remain living near her parents in the mainly Sunni Muslim neighbourhood of Saidiya, in southern Baghdad. The couple have been married for three years and lived in this neighbourhood happily; Mahdi doesn’t think that one’s sect should influence one’s life disproportionately and he lives his life according to that belief, he says.
However on July 4, 2014, Mahdi received an envelope at his home. In it were a letter and a bullet. The letter told him to leave at once. Mahdi packed up his furnishings and has since moved back to his parent’s house in Qahira, a mainly Shiite Muslim neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad. His wife came with him because as Mahdi says, “I wouldn’t leave her even if they cut my throat for it. But,” he adds, “I won’t ever forget the lovely years we spent living in that area surrounded by caring friends.”
All of those who have been forced to leave their homes because of their sect say it is local militias with extreme sectarian agendas that forced them to go.
However leaders of these groups deny they have anything to do with these forced evacuations.
“We haven’t forced anyone to leave the area,” says a man who wanted to be known only as Abu Nasser - he leads one of the mostly Shiite Muslim militia groups that are supposed to keep the mostly Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods of Saidiya and Dawra safe. “We look for terrorists and if we find them, we give their details to the official security forces,” he explained. “We have chased some terrorist cells in southern and western Baghdad but we didn’t kill anyone, we just handed them over to security forces.”
One of the tribal leaders in the Saidiya area told NIQASH the denials were not surprising. The man, who wished to be known only as Abu Sabah, said there were some militia members who were working in the strictest secrecy to force people from other sects, or anyone considered a minority, to leave their homes. However Abu Sabah wouldn’t talk more about which militias were involved or which political party they were affiliated with.