In quieter Baghdad, perils still lurk

Many Iraqis who fled Baghdad are beginning to return, unaware of what awaits them in a city altered in the sectarian warfare.

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I had plans to interview Amoura for a story about Iraqi families who had decided to return to Baghdad from Syria hoping to find a safer city than the one they had left.

Amoura, a mother of five, came back on Nov. 26, just one day before the Iraqi government chartered buses from Damascus to return hundreds of other refugees as proof the situation was indeed improving. And it has.

In December, violence has dropped 60 percent since June, according to the US military. The Associated Press reports that 600 Iraqi civilians and security forces have been killed this month, compared with 2,309 in December 2006.

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Yet, the city's landscape has been drastically altered as a result of the sectarian bloodshed here. Many returning refugees find they are shut out of their old homes and while violence has dropped, the perils of war still remain.

Before we could meet, another car bombing went off in another Baghdad neighborhood on Dec. 12. It killed Amoura and four others.

Her story is that of the agonizing calculations – and sometimes miscalculations – that Iraqis have grown so accustomed to making since the start of the war in 2003.

The mother of four boys and a girl, Amoura (her children insisted that only her nickname be used), fled to Damascus in July 2006 after she had been displaced twice in Baghdad. First she had to leave her home in the southeastern neighborhood of Baghdad Jadida, where a bitter sectarian turf battle was raging.

Amoura, the sister of one of the Monitor's employees in Baghdad, is a Shiite and was married to an ex-Army officer who was Sunni. He died in 1992. The names of their children reflected their intersectarian union, which was proof that that kind of relationship once didn't matter in Iraq.

But the family became more out of place in their own home as sectarian battles began raging, redrawing neighborhood boundaries all around them. They received threatening notes telling them to vacate or they would be killed.

Amoura fled to what she thought was the relative safety of a predominantly Shiite enclave in the capital's Karrada district. But there she found another threat: car bombs that went off almost daily. She eventually decided to join the stream of Iraqis fleeing to Syria.

With the little savings they had, the family rented a small apartment in Jaramana, a section of Damascus full of Iraqi refugees. To make ends meet, the eldest son waited tables at a local restaurant, the second son worked at an Iraqi bakery, and another took up tailoring. None were able to enroll in a Syrian school.

"It was tough, very tough," the eldest son told me when I went to pay my condolences at his mother's funeral.

A recent survey of 3,553 Iraqi refugees in Syria conducted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ipsos market research group showed that 33 percent have only funds to last for three months or less, 46 percent say their children had to drop out of school, and 19 percent could not afford treatment for their illnesses.

The situation was so dire for Amoura's family in Syria that she kept coming back to Baghdad to collect her share of rations of sugar, rice, tea, flour, and other supplies that the government now intermittently provides to its citizens. A friend would save up her rations and meet her in a neutral zone for the handover.

The family members, like many among the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, decided to approach the UNHCR to seek asylum in any Western country. "They told us to write our story on the application, but we were rejected," says the eldest son.

Over the summer, Amoura started getting calls from one of her brothers that the security situation had improved. She was hesitant to come back, her sons said.

Then, last month, as the US and the Iraqi government began releasing statistics about the dramatic plunge in violence, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki started urging refugees to come home as an affirmation of progress. Again, one of Amoura's brothers called and told her to come back.

She relented, but decided to leave two of her sons behind in Damascus and came back with the two others and the daughter.

She shunned the free trip home on government-chartered buses on Nov. 27 that was offered by Mr. Maliki to nearly 800 Iraqi refugees in Syria. Her eldest son, who returned with her, said his mother feared the publicity and the chance that the boys may be identified as the sons of an ex-regime Sunni officer by Maliki's Shiite-led government.

Upon return, they found their home in Baghdad Jadida was off-limits. It was being occupied by a Shiite family that had been displaced from Diyala Province because of sectarian violence. The family, connected to local militiamen, refused to vacate or pay rent.

Amoura had no choice but to rent a home in Zayouna, a still rather mixed middle-class neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad, for at least two months until she sorted out the dilemma of her house.

The eldest son was told the local police might be able to help. A policeman demanded a bribe of 300,000 dinars ($295), which the son says he paid. He was later told that there was little the police could do because the squatting family was connected to powerful local militiamen. The bribe was kept.

A friend of his said his best bet would be the local office of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

On Dec. 12, the friend came to pick him up and his mother to take them to Mr. Sadr's office in Baghdad Jadida.

As they entered the vehicle, a car bomb went off nearby. "No one came to rescue us; people started running away. My mother got up and started shouting for help and then she fell down and died," says the eldest son, wounded in the same attack.

Amoura's brother says it's his fault. He insisted that she come back from Syria, but then quickly adds: "It was her fate and destiny. At least she died in her homeland and not as a stranger in a strange land."

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