Displaced Iraqis, now told to go home, fear for their lives

NAJAF, Iraq — Mahdi Saleh Abd, 32, is scarred by the images of his dead brothers. Gunmen shot two in their home. The Shiite family fled the city of Habbaniyah in mostly Sunni Arab Anbar province. But before they could get away thugs ambushed the family and slit a third brother's throat in front of Abd and his mother.

That was two years ago, but as he told his story inside a trailer at a displaced persons camp in southern Iraq, his face was rife with worry.

The Ministry of Displacement and Migration has ordered closure of the tent and trailer camp in the desert where Abd’s family lives along with 230 other Shiite Muslim families just outside the southern city of Najaf -- almost all displaced from Sunni-dominated Anbar province or Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad. Officials said the government plans to close all other camps for the displaced in Iraq. One official described them as “fake camps,” filled with people who are criminals taking advantage of the aid provided by non-governmental organizations.

"I've looked for work for two years. We have nowhere to go," Abd said, his eyes filled with tears at the thought of returning to the place where his brothers were killed. "Habbaniyah only has Sunni people. When you need them they will not defend you. They killed three of my family."

But the pressure is on, and private charities have also begun to close down their operations.

Shiites are not the only ones affected. In Fallujah, in western Anbar province, Sunni families displaced from Shiite neighborhoods inhabit a windowless building that an Islamic charity opened to them two years ago.

There is no running water; the stairwells are filled with trash, and families have fashioned doors to different rooms with corrugated tin. The building is only a shell of what it should be, but it is their safe haven.

Now the Islamic Society, a non-profit group that owns the half-finished hospital, has ordered them to leave. Residents have received notice to appear in court pending eviction. Baghdad is safe enough, said Abdul Nasser al Qubaisi, a representative of the charity. The families need to leave, he said.

According to the International Organization of Migration, a non-profit organization affiliated with the United Nations, more than 2.8 million Iraqis have been displaced internally, and another 2 million have fled to other countries.

The Ministry of Displacement and Migration makes no apologies for trying to close down the camps for the displaced, of which Najaf is by far the largest.

In Iraqi culture it is considered shameful to live in tents and trailers, and only the most desperate of Iraqi society reside in the camp. Many had been squatters living in makeshift homes made from reeds before their homes were bulldozed. About a month later this camp was opened.

The government promised 1 million Iraqi Dinars, or about $847, to the displaced who return to homes where they were previously registered and six months of rent for those who are now squatting.

"We don't want the people to stay there and (for it to) become a place for criminals and dirty practices," said Ali Shalan Mohan, a department director in the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. "We don't want camps. This is not Darfur. We want to help them to restore their lives."

Currently the provincial government has blocked efforts by the ministry to shut down the camp.

"It is not right to force these people to return," said Asaad Abu Galal, the governor of Najaf, as he waited in a tent outside the camp while the Iraqi army passed out aid from an American charity through the local Provincial Reconstruction Team. "They must return through their own will."

About 30 families did go home, and one family was killed upon returning. Now everyone fears this could be their fate.

But despite the pressure put on people to return, the International Organization of Migration, which has not recommended return, says the government is trying to do the right thing.

"It's (the government) job to assist their own people, and they are trying to assist their own people, but they can't force anybody and they don't. They're trying to respond to those few who do want to return," said Rafiq Tschannen, the chief of the Iraq mission of the International Organization of Migration. "We hope and pray that the trend will increase in a positive way, and we are happy that the government actually responds."

But members of the committee for displaced people in the parliament worry that the government is rushing people to return before they are ready, to bolster the image of the government.

"The government intends to close the file of the displaced in Iraq by the end of 2008," said Bassim al Hassani, a member of the parliament’s committee on displacement. "They claim that there is security and political stability so there is no reason for such camps. It is to attain a political objective at the expense of the humanitarian situation."

This year the government pledged some $85 million to aid the displaced in the supplementary budget approved in August. But only about $500,000 has been spent on aid for the displaced so far, Shalan said.

The returnees are still a trickle rather than a flood. But in recent months, for the first time since 2003, the number of people returning to their homes is slightly higher than those that have fled. In Baghdad, where the most people have been displaced, about 8 percent have returned, according to the International Organization of Migration.

But for the displaced, the numbers don't matter. The rumors of people being killed for returning are enough to stop them.

Manal Ghaidan left the western neighborhood of Jihad in Baghdad when her three children and husband were killed two years ago. She fled with her son and lived in the streets for months before moving into the half-finished building given to the displaced by the Islamic Society in Fallujah.

Now she holds the notice of eviction that may force her to return to the place she fears or find a new home to rent at highly inflated prices.

Ghaidan remembers stepping over the bodies on her street and picking up the dead members of her family at the morgue.

"If we leave here where can we go?" she asked. "We can't even afford a car to rent to return. We can't go back there. We saw killing with our own eyes."

In Najaf, Abd scoffed at a visit by the minister of displacement and migration to the camp last week.

"Every day someone comes and threatens us," he said.

A woman interrupted him as people in the camp crowded together to protest any talk of closing the facility.

"The ministry said to return home, but we are homeless,"” she said.

"I have three martyrs from my family, and he tells me, 'Where did you come from?' "Abd recalled.

"I said ‘Habbaniyah,' " he said.

"Go back to Habbaniyah," Abd recounted the answer of Minister Abdul Samad Rahman Sultan

"They say that the area is safe, but it is not safe," he said. "The government says so, but others tell us do not return."