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Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 12:16 GMT
Iraqi refugees: "We can't return"
The decrease in violence in Iraq over the past few months has seen a number of Iraqis return home. But many of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled the violence are unable or unwilling to go back.

In the first of two first person accounts from Iraqi women now living in Damascus, Umm Ali, describes what she found when she visited the home in Baghdad she had fled a year earlier.

UMM ALI, DAMASCUS

Umm Ali was forced to leave Baghdad with her family in 2007 because she was a Shia living in a Sunni district of Baghdad.

A woman looks at a US soldier as he patrols her Baghdad neighbourhood
Some Sunni areas in Baghdad are surrounded by concrete walls

I decided to go back to Iraq, because I needed to know what had happened to my house and to the two mini-supermarkets we ran from the building.

The need to know was even more urgent than the fear I had of going back.

I approached [the Sunni district of] al-Amariya from the adjacent Shia district which is now controlled by the Mehdi army.

There was a makeshift checkpoint, guarded by both Iraqi and US soldiers.

After searching me, they let me walk past the concrete barrier and into al-Amariya.

I had to hire a taxi to my house, because it was too far to walk and I was afraid to walk on my own.

I did all this on my own by the way, because it is safer that way. It is far more dangerous for young men to travel between areas than for a single woman, so I didn't risk bringing my sons with me.

As we drove through the streets, I noticed that there were different people sitting outside the houses of people I knew.

Some of the shops looked different, and the people running them had changed, too.

I decided to go first to the house of a Sunni neighbour who I knew was still there.

His family welcomed me and I started crying - so did they.

New 'owners'

I asked them about the people who now lived in my house. They said they were a Sunni family who were forced out of a Shia neighbourhood.

They also said they had asked the new people to respect my house and my belongings - but that they didn't seem to care.

I stayed with them for a while, then I took a deep breath and decided to visit my old home.

I knocked at the door and a woman answered. I introduced myself as the owner of the house. I told her I didn't want anything, I just wanted to have a look at the place and see my furniture.

She reluctantly let me in.

The husband came home. I found out he now runs my two shops and that he is making very good money out of them

I saw that most of the furniture we had stored in one room before we left was being used by the family - and that they were not taking good care of it. The house was not clean or tidy.

I felt terribly sad. It had been so difficult to get hold of these things during the war with Iran and during the hard years of sanctions and here they were being treated carelessly by other people.

"Why are you using my furniture? Why didn't you bring your own things?" I asked the woman.

She replied that they were forced to leave their house without their belongings, so they had had no choice.

After a short while the husband came home. I found out he now runs my two shops and that he is making very good money out of them.

IRAQI REFUGEES
2.4m Iraqis internally displaced
2m Iraqi refugees abroad
Iraqi government offering US$800 to those who return
3,650 families registered in Baghdad for grant
6,000 families waiting to register for grant
Source: International Organisation for Migration

"What do you want from us?" he yelled at me. I told him I came just to see my home and my belongings.

He shouted his reply.

"Shias forced us to leave our house, so it's our right to have a Shia's house in return."

I asked him to give me rent from the shops and the house. I explained that I live in Syria and I don't have any income.

He refused point blank. He said he had bought the two shops from the Sunnis who had lived in the house before he came.

'Surreal'

I realised then they were the second Sunni family to have lived in our house in the year since we left.

At this point I looked at his wife - she looked ashamed. She told her husband to give me some money to help me out. He did so unwillingly - giving me less than 1% of what he should have done. He warned me not to come back.

I walked back to the bridge that connects the two neighbourhoods. I was so preoccupied, I forgot to wait at the checkpoint. I was walking through when I heard an American soldier call out "taftish" (search) in bad Arabic.

He searched me and I walked back into the Shia neighbourhood.

The whole experience had been so surreal. I felt drained.

Translated from a piece by Huda Jabir for BBCArabic.com






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