Aid shrinks as Iraq's internal refugee tally grows

Some 280 NGOs are caring for Iraq's 2.3 million displaced by fighting. But the international support is drying up.

Abdul-Hassan Hussein has heard that security is improving in his Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya, recently a hotbed of Sunni extremists who were targeting Shiites like himself.

But Mr. Hussein is not rushing back just yet, as relatives there say it's too soon to know if the quiet will last.

While the return of some of the estimated 2.2 million refugees in Syria and neighboring countries is being heralded by Iraqi officials as a sign of progress in Baghdad, many of the Shiites in this refugee camp, who have come here because it's close to their holy city of Najaf, will stay until they are convinced the sectarian warfare in Baghdad has truly ended.

Mr. Hussein and his family – he is a father of eight who is also caring for the 10-member family of his brother, killed in Ghazaliya at the height of sectarian bloodshed last year – are among the 2.3 million Iraqis considered internally displaced as of the end of September. That number is 16 percent higher than August, according the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization (IRCO).

And as the number of the internally displaced is growing, aid workers say the conditions they are living in is growing worse. They say it is becoming especially tough for children 12 and under, who make up 65 percent of the total number of internally displaced Iraqis.

Aid agencies say the situation is getting harsher because of dwindling aid from international agencies and an overwhelmed central government in Baghdad. Hussein and his family have been living with 2,000 other people in the camp for more than a year now.

"Up to this point, the central government has done nothing for these people, only [nongovernmental organizations] help them sometimes, and all that has been spent on the camp is from our budget," says Ahmed Duaibel, spokesman for the Najaf government. "Our pleas to Baghdad have fallen on deaf ears."

And help from other quarters is also less forthcoming. As of last Friday, a United Nations fund for emergency relief for Iraqi children and refugees had only $33.8 million in it. The UN says it must have $98.9 million to meet the needs, including those of the internally displaced.

Kasra Mofarah, who heads the Jordan-based NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), an umbrella group of 280 nongovernmental organizations working in Iraq, says he is now seeing donor fatigue after years of contributors sinking billions of dollars into the country's reconstruction with little results. Plus, many fear lack of accountability, he says.

Most domestic refugees live their lives in limbo. They are often treated as second-class citizens in the provinces where they fled to. They are not allowed to reregister their domicile, which prevents them in most cases from receiving monthly food rations or enrolling their children in local schools.

Although the refugees in Al-Manathra are closely watched and guarded by Najaf authorities, they have been more fortunate than many other war refugees.

They have clean drinking water, the province is building them trailers to replace tents, and they are aided by the offices of the city's many clerics. The office of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls the Mahdi Army, has even donated a generator.

But while things here may be better than in other refugee camps throughout the country, its residents say that they are particularly worried about the children living here.

"The trauma alone from the violence they have been exposed to will have huge consequences for years to come," says Mr. Mofarah.

Abu Noor, the mayor of the Al-Manathra camp, says he has 600 children age 15 and below and that many are showing signs of malnutrition. Frail, disheveled, and barefoot children running amid puddles of still and muddy water are a common sight at the camp.

Numan Mahdi lifts the red sweatshirt of his 2-year-old daughter, Khalida, to show scars suffered from shrapnel wounds that she sustained when a mortar shell hit their home in Baghdad.

"There are still two pieces of shrapnel wedged in her lungs. She has difficulty breathing and walking sometimes," he says. "Our kids only smelled gunpowder and saw blood. We need a solution from our government: either help us find better lodging or return us home."

Ten-year-old Ghufran Muhammad, whose first name means forgiveness in Arabic, says she misses Baghdad and her bicycle and dolls. But her father, Muhammad Hadi, says it's impossible now to go back to their neighborhood of Al-Fadhel in eastern Baghdad after barely escaping the sectarian carnage last year.

"Where could I begin to forgive, we are just filled with wounds on the inside," he says when asked about the possibility of forgiveness.

Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration says it has earmarked $100 million to help the internally displaced. The UN mission in Iraq said it would help the ministry repatriate both the returning refugees and the internally displaced and that, as a first step, it was providing blankets and kitchen equipment to 5,000 families.

But few at the Manathra camp are impressed.

"I have not seen a cent yet, just promises … they could care less about us," says Kleib Muhammad Abdul-Zahra. "Not even a visit by an official or minister to inquire if our children have enough food to eat."

Mr. Abdul-Zahra, a farmer, fled the town of Tarmia, north of Baghdad, with his five sons and a daughter after he returned home last year to find his wife killed and a note from militants warning them to leave because "he's an agent for Shiite militias."

His eyes well up as one of his chapped and cracked hands reaches into the pocket of his white baggy cotton pants and pulls out the crumpled and faded note. "This is all I have left to claim compensation from my government," he says.

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