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My Iraq: a reporter's 20-year retrospective

The longest-serving Western correspondent in Baghdad tracks the lives of two Iraqi friends – from dinners under the moon and palms to the heartbreak of war.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 2009

Bassim Suleiman, Jane Arraf, old friends, and Iraqi security, March 1, 2009, on the Tigris River in Baghdad.

Farah Nosh / Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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For Iraqis struggling to find a place in a country they don't recognize, the most heartbreaking decision of all is whether to stay or go. Two of my oldest friends here, who over the years have given me the deepest glimpses into Iraq, have struggled long and hard on the paths they've chosen. Nermeen al-Mufti was a single mother on the front lines. She spent years documenting the bitter war with Iran before she wrote children's books and an outspoken newspaper column. She helped me explore the Baghdad of 1001 Nights in the years of Saddam Hussein's rule. Bassim Sulaiman, a soulful bon vivant amid the tyranny and the rubble, philosophized over candlelit dinners on the Tigris River. He invested huge hopes in the US invasion, only to be hurt by it. The ebb and flow of people like them is part of the history and the future of Iraq. "Every Iraqi who lived under Saddam could write a book about his life," a sheikh who, before the war, escaped Iraq in the trunk of a car, once told me. It's still true. Just when you think a chapter is over, the stories continue to reveal themselves. In those pages is my Iraq.

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The perky Arabic voice makes the waiting lounge with its 1970s décor and fake leather seats seem almost normal: "Baghdad International Airport would like to announce..." But if you scratch the surface even a tiny bit, there are worlds colliding here – the individual stories that make up a country unfolding one boarding call at a time.

Large, loud American contractors eager to get home – or just away – call to their buddies after buying duty-free Cuban cigars. They push into line ahead of veiled women, largely oblivious to the footprint they leave or the stories that surround them.

At the cafe, a TV blares at deafening levels. The call to prayer interrupts the latest action movie. Both are just a backdrop to lives in transit.

I run into an acquaintance I haven't seen since his cousin, someone I worked with, was killed in an ambush six years ago. He has been accepted as a refugee in the US and is about to leave Iraq for good with his wife and son. He doesn't know where they'll live: "They told me Ontario." He seems less worried than I about what will happen to him. But seeing my quizzical look, he adds that he thought Ontario was in Canada.

It's so much safer now that sometimes it seems as if the violence that erupted here was a fevered dream and that the war is over. It isn't.

I sit next to a woman wearing black and an expression that suggests something terrible has recently happened. She lost her brother in a suicide bombing in January at a tribal reconciliation meeting when one of the sheikhs sent in his 14-year-old son to blow himself up.

A visiting Iraqi friend sitting with us in the shiny, modern airport built by Saddam Hussein tells why he left the country he loves: "I lost faith that it would get better."

Long-lost friends here greet each other like survivors of the Titanic – amazed at their good fortune to have lived through disaster but carrying the memories of who and what was lost; always half-wondering if there's another wave coming.

The Iraqi refugee catch 22

Rafiq Tschannen, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission for Iraq and Jordan, discussed their plight with Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter.

Since the Iraq War began in 2003, 15 percent of Iraq’s citizens have been displaced – 2 million fled from Iraq, 2.7 million fled internally. Rafiq Tschannen, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission for Iraq and Jordan, discussed their plight with Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter.

Q: What caused most refugees to flee, and do these issues now affect their decision to return?

A: One overwhelming reason was the total breakdown of security. Inthe meantime, basic services like electricity, water, etc. havecollapsed. Now some people are returning because security has improved,but some are hesitating because there is electricity where they are staying now and they are thinking, "Why should we go back to a place where there isn't electricity?" It's a bit of a Catch-22 – [if] you don't come, your services won't be restored. What we see is often that the displaced send one or two family members to check out an old neighborhood before making the decision that everybody returns. The government of Iraq would have hoped that the numbers are larger and quicker. But there's a slow and steady return, which is promising.

Q: Why is it important for refugees to return?

A: Among the refugees are a lot of well-educated, well-qualified people needed to help rebuild.

Q: Why haven’t most displaced Iraqis ended up in large camps?

A: The displacement was gradual. Every day, hundreds of people left, but it'snot as though 4 million left in a month. So that's why they were ableto find places [outside Iraq]. The main displacement was from Baghdad,and many went back to their tribal homeland. In a way you can say manyreturned to their origins.