Rush to return strains fragile peace |

Rush to return strains fragile peace

Daily Staff Report

Some refugees are returning to find squatters in their former homesL.A. Times-Washington Post News ServiceVail, CO ColoradoSABA AL-BOR, Iraq – A short woman with a worried look on her face walks down a dirt road toward her home, ignoring the throng of U.S. soldiers and well-dressed dignitaries clogging the road.They are here to trumpet the revival of this town northwest of Baghdad, which is witnessing the return of thousands of residents who were among an estimated 4.2 million Iraqis who fled sectarian violence in recent years. She is here to see what remains of her home, which she last saw 14 months ago.Iraqi officials say tens of thousands of Iraqis are returning to their homes, drawn by improved security and financial-aid packages offered by a government eager to bring its people home. But the effort, which includes Iraqis returning from other countries and those who relocated within Iraq, is fraught with problems — not least the specter of bombings such as the triple blasts that killed at least 41 people Wednesday in southern Iraq. Some, such as Ahlam Kareem, a widow, are finding their homes looted, scorched and uninhabitable. Some, such as Abu Ayad, a Shiite man who brought his family back to the Sunni-dominated Ghazaliya neighborhood in Baghdad, are being driven out again by lingering sectarian tensions.Many, such as Zaher Salman, who returned to Saba al-Bor from Syria early last month, came because they could not afford the higher cost of living elsewhere or because their visas expired. Salman laments he has no way to earn a living, because he was robbed on the highway from Syria and lost everything, including the car he used for his taxi business.”I’m staying here because I don’t have any money left,” he said. “I hope it will stay safe.”People coming back are eligible for about 1 million Iraqi dinars, or roughly $800, and a monthly payout of about $120 for six months after their return.But the country is struggling to revive schools, clinics and other essentials needed to care for a population traumatized by the past and edgy about the future.So delicate is the situation that the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees issued a warning Nov. 23 about moving too quickly. The agency said it did not believe that Iraqi social services and security were adequate to handle the large-scale return of displaced people.Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh played down such concerns. At a news conference late last month, he said that nobody was being forced to come back and that the government was “doing its best” to protect those who did.Numbers disputeDetermining how many people have returned is impossible, and skeptics accuse the government of exaggerating figures to make it appear that all is well in a still turbulent country. Dabbagh said 60,000 people had returned from Syria alone in the past month. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration says that, since October, 10,000 Iraqi families displaced within the country have registered or are in the process of registering for benefits to return to their hometowns.U.S. is worriedThe numbers are enough to worry high-ranking U.S. military officials.Army Col. Bill Rapp, a senior aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. mission in Iraq, said a concern to the military was how to handle the situation if returnees find squatters in their home.”The Iraqi government has not published a policy on what happens when your house is occupied by someone else,” Rapp said. “They want these guys to come back, but they haven’t yet figured out the mechanism for re-establishing people.”He said U.S. forces had been “pleading” with the Iraqi government to come up with a policy so that American troops aren’t asked to sort property disputes.On the eastern side of town, where Saba al-Bor’s Sunni population lives, Talib Abid Karim, who returned Nov. 20, says she did not know she could apply for compensation. She looks at Usama Ali, a volunteer helping resettle people, and asks him to explain the program. Ali says that, even if she applied for the money, she would not get it, because, he insists, only Shiite returnees are being compensated.Later a U.S. soldier, Army Capt. Brooks Yarborough, dismissed Ali’s claim as “just a rumor.” But he acknowledged that it was a sign of the lingering distrust that must be overcome if Saba al-Bor, which before the war was a relatively affluent community of about 73,000, is to become a thriving city once again.Karim’s house is unscathed, but she is worried. Her husband has no job, and her 12-year-old daughter bears ghastly scars on her stomach from being caught in crossfire during their year elsewhere. She fears that the girl will have no chance of getting married if her scars cannot be treated.Both Sunnis and Shiites, as well as U.S. troops, say there is nowhere close for Sunnis to go for serious medical problems. The nearest hospitals require traveling through areas still considered high-risk for Sunnis because of Shiite militia activities. Getting to a hospital in a Sunni city requires a circuitous route that would take about nine hours.At a recent meeting in Saba al-Bor’s newly refurbished government center, which doubles as a U.S.-Iraqi military post, two city leaders were trying to devise a system to ensure that returnees stay. It was clear they could fix problems such as broken doors and windows, but not broken trust.Radhi Muhsin, the city manager, and Mohammed Abdullah, a resettlement volunteer, agreed that getting people to return was not the problem — the problem was making the city work again and getting the Sunni and Shiite population to mix.In the past two months, U.S. officials say, more than 20,000 people have streamed home to Saba al-Bor, which had a mixed population before the war. Now it’s mainly Shiite, because many Sunnis are wary of returning to a place guarded by a police force that is nearly 100 percent Shiite, Abdullah and Muhsin said.The city remains unofficially divided into the eastern Sunni section and the western Shiite section.”It’s really a cease-fire at this point. It’s not reconciliation. They just stopped shooting each other,” said Army Capt. Timothy Dugan, with the 7th Cavalry, 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. The unit has been here since January and has seen the violence subside and the population surge back, but it also has seen how hard it will be to make Saba al-Bor whole again.On the Sunni side of town, there is one school, with six classrooms for 500 pupils. On the Shiite side, there are 11 functioning schools.The Sunni school is overseen by two headmasters, one Sunni and one Shiite, who are old friends. They use their own salaries to pay seven volunteers to teach, because they say the ministry is dragging its feet hiring teachers for Sunni children.”We don’t have enough teachers or doctors, but if you go to the Shiite sector, you’ll see it’s different,” said the Sunni headmaster, Ali Aziz Sultan.”I’m a Shiite, and it’s easy for me to go down there to the clinic,” said his colleague, Moyed Hadie. “But it’s difficult for the Sunnis to go there.”U.S. and Iraqi officials say such complaints come from fear and distrust rather than a recognition of the current situation. “The problem is, people keep looking to the past,” Muhsin said. “It is hard to make them look forward.”

Support Local Journalism