Abu Haydar and his family were one of 152 Shiite families forced to flee al-Atiba neighborhood in southern Baghdad in revenge for the displacement by Shiite militias of 121 Sunni families from neighboring al-Alfain.
Today, the family lives in a tin hut in a “displaced people neighborhood.”
The 38-year old Abu Haydar is used to welcoming guests in the traditional Iraqi way offering tea and cigarettes and describing with sorrow the reasons he and his family live in such trying circumstances. “I was obliged to come to this miserable camp when a tribal Sunni militia expelled us from our house in al-Atiba neighborhood where we lived for more than twenty years,” he tells his guests, adding that “returning has become impossible.”
Abu Haydar’s story is similar to many other stories told by families who have found refuge in the outskirts of Baghdad or in other cities known for the unity of their sectarian identity after being expelled from their homes. Al-Atiba neighborhood is just one of the many areas hit by the sectarian “hurricane” which has struck Iraq without mercy.
Not all displaced people live in camps like Abu Haydar – some have occupied empty homes. Reem, one displaced person who recently returned from two years as a refugee in Syria, Jordan and Egypt described how she could not return home because her house has been occupied by other displaced families. “Today we do not have a house or any possessions because a family which was deported for sectarian reasons occupied our house and took over our possession,” she said.
Another man, Haj Fattah, who sells cigarettes in the Sunni al-Amiriyah neighborhood believes that the hope of returning to his home in al-Baya’ area is close to impossible because a displaced Shiite family has now occupied it. “Passing the old street where we used to live has become a danger for me and for my children,” he said.
The government’s recent announcement of a one million Iraqi dinar ($800) payment for every displaced family that returns to their original area has not appeased the fears of displaced families. Many continue to suspect and fear that official government forces contain former militia members.
General Qassem Atta, a government spokesman, acknowledged the worries when he acknowledged that the “plan does not necessarily mean that there are security guarantees for families who return to their old houses.”
Moreover, government decrees on legal procedures against people infringing the rights of the displaced families have not brought about any tangible results according to a source at the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. The source told Niqash that “problems faced by the ministry resulting from the occupation of houses by displaced families are not easily solved.”
According to the ministry’s recent statistics, there are 3350 houses occupied in the capital city of Baghdad by displaced families. Numbers reveal that 65% of displaced families do not own houses any more and 15% of the houses have been completely destroyed. A report issued by the UN refugee agency indicated that the crisis may escalate with increased waves of displacement. The report said that the number of displaced people in 2008 reached 800,000 compared to 400,000 in 2007.
Today, displaced people also face other major struggles beyond their property situation. Many live in insecure areas, without access to proper infrastructure, health and public services. Thousands of children have been forced to leave school to work and help their families.
“We felt desperate with government procedures and have started to adapt ourselves to our condition,” said 29-year old Um Ala’, who bakes bread in her house and sells it in al-Atiba neighborhood. In a painful tone mixed with extra suffering as a result of the August heat she complained that government support had never arrived.