Middle East

Iraqis flee violence in Syria, return home amid uncertainty

BAGHDAD: It’s easy to identify the Iraqis fleeing the violent uprising in Syria as they arrive by bus in Baghdad.

They’re the ones carrying a sad array of worldly possessions: blankets and mattresses tied with cord; TVs and curtain rods; boxes once filled with food from the U.N.’s refugee agency now packed with clothes and baby toys.

“It is better to die at home than to die abroad,” said Zeena Ibrahim, a 33-year-old pregnant mother of two.

She returned with her husband from Damascus, where they have lived since 2006. Her husband used to be in the Iraqi army, and after receiving repeated threats, the couple decided to flee to the safety of Syria.

Now that haven is gone. And as uprisings and revolutions sweep the Middle East, many Iraqis are beginning to return home.

It is a development that says just as much about the improving security in Iraq as it does about the deteriorating conditions in countries that used to be stable.

Although Iraq still has its share of woes, it is nothing compared with 2006 or 2007, when bombings were a daily occurrence and death squads tortured people with electric drills.

“No doubt Iraq’s situation is now better than that of other countries in the region and this has encouraged Iraqis to return to their country and enjoy some peace,” said Salam al-Khafaji, Iraq’s deputy migration minister.

Anecdotal evidence at the vacant lot where the buses arrive from Syria suggests the beginning of what could be an exodus if the situation there deteriorates further.

Before the uprising began, about 12-15 buses traveled between Baghdad and Damascus each day, said bus company owner Mohammed Nosh. Now about 25-30 buses make the daily trip, he said.

Some returning Iraqis report fighting in their neighborhoods in Syria, with police everywhere. Others describe how Iraqis are being targeted.

“The situation is very bad – killings and robberies,” said Hassan Abdul-Hussein, a father of six who used to live in Damascus. He and his family left Iraq to find work nearly a year ago. “On the walls, they wrote in graffiti, ‘Iraqis leave to your country.”‘

According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, 3,040 people returned to Iraq in January, 3,250 in February and 4,570 in March. That’s a jump from the 2,220 who returned in December. Some are returning from Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Khafaji said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki evacuated people on his personal jet from various countries.

Salim Rahim moved his family of five to Libya in the 1990s when his wife found a job at a university. But after more than a decade in Tripoli and Misrata, they fled without even their children’s stuffed animals.

“We left Misrata because life stopped there. Food prices doubled and tripled. There is no government there,” said Salim Rahim. Their two cars were destroyed by shelling, and a tank round blew a hole in their apartment.

Iraqi officials seem to be preparing for even more returnees. Government officials had visited Libya before the uprising to encourage Iraqis there to return home, saying their country needed doctors, lawyers and professors.

Many Iraqis who never left eye the returnees with mixed emotions. They say it’s good for people to be back in their homeland, especially well-educated professionals.

Most Iraqis who went to Syria are believed to be Sunni, and the prospect of a large-scale Sunni return also raises concerns in a country still dealing with the legacy of sectarian violence.

“There are some immigrants who were provoking sectarian tensions,” said Talal Mawlood, 29, of Baghdad. “Those kind of people, we don’t want back.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 21, 2011, on page 9.

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