Nothing to go back to, no place of their own
January 25, 2009
BAGHDAD — Jabar Abu Abdullah once had a good job — guarding a farm in Sab al Bor — and a trailer to live in.
But like many Iraqis, he fled his home four years ago when sectarian fighting broke out. Now, unlike those countrymen who are returning to their old neighborhoods as the violence subsides, Abdullah remains in the Baghdad slum of Chirkuk, operating a closet-sized general store.
“I don’t own anything, so I can’t go back,” he said.
Most reports on Iraqis who fled sectarian fighting have focused on those who want to reclaim their homes. Yet masses of displaced Iraqis have no homes to return to, and no desire to return to the areas where they once lived.
They’ve settled illegally on government land, built homes out of whatever was handy and refuse to move on. While the Iraqi government has had widespread success resettling those with homes, this group of internally displaced people, or IDP, is proving to be an altogether different problem. Baghdad province itself has an estimated 100,000 squatters.
The displaced homeless are among Iraq’s most destitute, although that group also includes some who simply don’t have a deed for homes they bought. Many weren’t even forced out by sectarian fighting. They left impoverished rural areas for Baghdad in the hope of making a better life. Migrants actually started building Chirkuk in 2003, before militias began terrorizing local neighborhoods en masse.
“We’re not even ‘low income.’ We’re ‘below income,’ ” Abdullah said.
Chirkuk is one of 33 so-called “IDP clusters” in Baghdad’s Kadimiyah district, said Lt. Col. Christopher Beckert, deputy commander for the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. These squatter villages range from a couple of dozen families to 780 families in Chirkuk. The district also has a government-sanctioned IDP camp with services similar to any other neighborhood, including schools.
The camps are blights on the neighborhoods around them. Their concentrated poverty makes them fertile ground for extremist groups who pay the destitute to place roadside bombs or attack coalition forces. Soldiers patrol the area daily to keep tabs on it.
“We know the Americans are here to defend us and fight al-Qaida, but we’re poor people,” Abdullah said. “If they offer money, we’ll do it.”
Residents set up stores in unsanctioned areas that don’t meet local codes and without paying requisite fees. The illegal stores undercut legitimate businesses. The Kadimiyah public works department bulldozed one group of illegal stores after the owners ignored warnings to leave.
But mostly they’re just unsightly. Residents slapped the homes together from cinder blocks, sheet metal, tarps and U.N. food bags. Trash litters the streets. In some districts, raw sewage turns the dirt roads into a fetid morass.
Kadimiyah residents, justly proud of their rapid return to normalcy, blame the clusters for many of the continuing problems in their communities.
“And they’re right. In many cases, there’s no argument there,” Beckert said.
Yet those displaced people can also be scapegoats for larger problems, he continued. Beckert noted that they wouldn’t be able to place roadside bombs without help from someone living in the community legitimately. They also face significant hurdles their richer counterparts don’t.
In his estimation, property owners make up the largest share of IDPs in his command’s area — about 3,000 people have returned home just in Hurriya, a Kadimiyah neighborhood. But helping those without a home isn’t as easy as helping those who own property in the neighborhoods they fled.
“I think it’s going to take longer to handle fewer people because they’re not the priority right now,” Beckert said. “Their problem is the district councils don’t want them in their neighborhood.”
Still, the displaced homeless have received some not-insignificant help. Improved security allowed the U.N. to install water tanks in Chirkuk and distribute humanitarian aid. Altogether, international agencies have provided $1.5 million in relief to Hurriya.
The relief only temporarily alleviates the hardships.
“What is the U.N. going to give you, split peas and rice?” Abdullah asked. “We got all that. We need a different way to help us. Our suffering is property.”
The Iraqi government has directed substantial resources for homeless displaced people. There are migrant return centers that pay returning families 1 million dinars, or about $870, to get back on their feet. It even paid residents of one cluster 3 million dinars to leave so it could turn the land into a parking area for visitors to Kadimiyah’s lucrative shrine. In all, the number of displaced homeless in the district has dropped by half over the past year.
But paying large numbers of people to find a new home can increase costs in Baghdad’s limited rental market, and some of those who were paid to leave probably just moved into other squatter villages. In all likelihood, the half that still remains will be the most difficult to help.
The government could set up more government-sanctioned IDP camps, Beckert said. It could also help them find places to rent or consider low-income housing. But it’s sometimes been slow to help.
“We as Americans want to see these people not living in trash,” Beckert said. “The Iraqi government’s answer is, ‘They shouldn’t be here, but what are we going to do about it?’ They don’t want to be pushed. They want to have an Iraqi solution to it. We may be just a little too impatient.”
Abdullah can complain about many things in Chirkuk, but business isn’t one them. Although he’s not rich by any means, his neighbors ensure that he has enough to provide for his wife and three daughters. The key, he said, is taking care of his customers.
“If you treat them right, you’ll make a good business,” he said.
That’s a lesson Abdullah said he wants the Iraqi government to remember as it figures out what to do with places like Chirkuk.