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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 December 2004, 21:57 GMT
Nervous return for Iran's Iraqi refugees

By Frances Harrison
BBC News in Ahwaz, Iran-Iraq border

"I lost everything because of disrespect and humiliation at the hands of Saddam Hussein," says 60-year-old Marsh Arab, Jassim Hamidawi.

Iraqi refugees aboard bus
Mohammed Hussein Mayahi (right) hopes Iraq's future will be brighter

"But I have no option except to return to Iraq," he adds, even though the marsh lands he once called home have dried up.

Jassim has spent the past 14 years in Ansar refugee camp in Khuzestan in south western Iran as one of 202,000 Iraqi refugees who fled to Iran - the largest number of registered Iraqi refugees anywhere in the world.

Nobody is pressurising the Iraqi refugees to be repatriated - indeed the UN's refugee body (the UNHCR) would prefer they wait till the security situation improves in southern Iraq.

But since the fall of Saddam Hussein, 107,000 have spontaneously returned home and that has prompted the UN to step in and help those who insist on going back.

They have a sad and tragic past and their future is not clear
Hossein Shiravi
UNHCR employee

The journey home begins at dawn, 12 kilometres (8 miles) from the Iraqi border in a freezing cold tent.

Women, men and children are taught about the dangers of land mines and unexploded ordinance.

De-mining has yet to start in Iraq and UN staff say they hear that 10 to 20 deaths and injuries occur every week from mine accidents in the south of the country.

Mixed identity

For those about to board buses for the short 90-minute journey to Basra, the more immediate worry is where they are going to live.

"The place I come from was completely demolished by Saddam Hussein," says former teacher Mohammed Hussein Mayahi, who fled Iraq 20 years ago.

"There's nothing left other than holes and ditches and hills - just lumps of soil; it's not fit for living creatures any more."

Mr Mayahi has decided to take his family back because he hopes the elections due to be held in Iraq in January will bring better people to power who will impose the rule of law.

Refugees aboard bus
The refugee children feel they are neither entirely Iraqi nor Iranian

Iraq was a rich country, he says, and could be again if its leaders did not use the oil reserves for war.

"I hope to have a better future for my children," he says, explaining why he has decided to go back now and not wait.

But for refugee children repatriation is not easy.

They may sing songs disparaging Saddam Hussein and his sons but they have learned to read and write in Persian at school not Arabic.

Born in Iran but Iraqi by nationality, they feel they belong in neither country.

"They have a sad and tragic past and their future is not clear," says local UNHCR employee Hossein Shiravi, who is an ethnic Arab living in Iran and like most Iranians, is deeply sympathetic towards the refugees.

"They must prepare to bear the impact of this tragic war between the Iraqis and the Americans," he says.

Seizing the chance

Mr Mayahi and his children are on board the last bus to leave Iran, followed by trucks piled high with belongings - wardrobes, gas cookers, air conditioners and fridges, chattels accumulated in exile in Iran.

Iraqi soldier
Balaclavas hide the identity of Iraqi soldiers at the border

The bus stops at Shalamcheh border crossing point to pick up an armed escort for the drive to Basra, watched by armed Iraqi soldiers wearing balaclava masks to disguise their identity from potential attackers.

It is clear the military in this part of Iraq cannot even protect themselves, let alone returning refugees and civilians.

"I am very happy when I see my countrymen and women return home," says one Iraqi at the border.

"I feel I am one of them," he adds.

"We are hopeful that the future in Iraq will be better than the past because, God willing, the election will be democratic and the candidates will be better men than before - not dictators and despots," says another man, commenting on their future.

Driven out of their own country, for years Iraqis in Iran had little prospect of returning.

Now they have the chance to belong once again and they are seizing it as quickly as they can.




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