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It has taken years to restore a sense of “home” in parts of Iraq, a nation where war and violent dislocation have been the norm since US forces invaded in 2003, toppling Saddam Hussein and unleashing demons of ethnic hatred. That crucible was especially bloody in Baghdad, where mixed neighborhoods were “cleansed” by Sunni extremists or Shiite death squads. At its peak a decade ago, 3,000 people a month were being killed. But Iraqis have been moving back, determined to return home and reestablish bonds with neighbors. “It’s not a matter of healing but of overcoming,” says one Shiite who has resettled in a mixed neighborhood. “It’s going to remain inside, but you are going to adapt.” In some cases, Sunni families helped their longtime Shiite neighbors who chose to remain. They even disguised them as Sunnis to go out, despite the risk that they could be killed for doing so. “Sunni friends here told us, ‘The dust of your feet is more precious than those [people] who came to invade your houses,’” says a Shiite who brought his family home. “They said we were so precious to them.”
Aziz Ali Hassan will never forget the graffiti warning that appeared on his family home at the peak of Iraq’s sectarian war in late 2006, when Baghdad’s mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods were gripped by brutal ethnic cleansing.
Sunni militants linked to Al Qaeda had taken over the western Baghdad district of Al-Adel, forcing out Shiite families like Mr. Hassan’s.
Decades of living peacefully together – built on a sense of home and sanctuary, amid a tradition here of mutual reliance and neighborly care – was disintegrating before his eyes.
Daubed in red paint, the graffiti read: “Get out, you dogs.”
Hassan got the message, and he knew the consequences of defiance. Some 3,000 people were being killed every month in the capital alone – a rate of 100 per day.
Many of the bodies were dumped in the streets bearing signs of torture. Some were victims of Sunnis militants, as in Al-Adel; others the target of Shiite death squads that roamed other districts, murdering and forcing out Sunnis.
Overnight Hassan moved his family away from the crucible of Baghdad, southward to the Shiite shrine city of Karbala. It was a painful dislocation that forced him to redefine the meaning of home and safety, beyond the wide avenues and tidy, upper-middle-class homes of Al-Adel.
“We witnessed lots of killing; I was really afraid my sons would be killed,” recalls Hassan, a retired building contractor with a short grey beard, who serves as a deputy prayer leader.
“Home is me,” he says. “My house and my family are everything I have got.”
But to preserve his family, Hassan had to give up his house. They left with a few suitcases – and doubt that they could ever return.
Yet these days Hassan speaks at ease, now back in that very family home in Al-Adel, where slaps of gray paint barely conceal the original graffiti threat outside.
Challenge of restoring 'home'
The district could not be more different today. Shiite families, one by one, began to return to their homes in 2008, slowly rejuvenating this neighborhood by reversing ethnic cleansing and restoring its mixed nature. Similar partial returns have been under way in other Baghdad districts, where either Sunnis or Shiites were forced out.
It’s been a years-long process that gives insight into the variable meaning of “home” in Iraq, and the challenge of restoring – to a degree, at least – that sense of warmth and security in a nation where war and violent dislocation have been the norm since US forces invaded in 2003, both toppling Saddam Hussein and unleashing demons of ethnic hatred.
“It’s not a matter of healing but of overcoming, passing through. It’s going to remain inside but you are going to adapt, to improve,” says Laith, a resident who fled another mixed neighborhood with his Shiite family to Najaf during the worst period of violence, then resettled in Al-Adel in 2009.
The sectarian situation has improved “by adopting a new way of passing through differences,” says Laith. “People are more isolated than before. They are giving respect, they are cooperative, but they are not really friendly like before. Scars are still inside.”
Al-Adel is known to readers of The Christian Science Monitor as the place where correspondent Jill Carroll was kidnapped by Al Qaeda operatives on Jan. 7, 2006, and spirited to six different hideouts while being held captive for 82 days. Her translator, Alan Enwiyah, was shot dead; their driver escaped.
That incident took place just blocks from the home of Hassan, who says he witnessed Ms. Carroll’s abduction from a distance and heard the lethal gunshots.
Back then, she was meant to interview Adnan al-Dulaimi, a Sunni politician widely seen as orchestrating, with his sons, the Sunni militant presence and ethnic cleansing of Shiites in Al-Adel a decade ago. He and his associates were also widely considered the architects of Carroll’s kidnapping.
Yet today Al-Adel is a different place, trying to restore its blend of Sunni and Shiite residents. The house of the late Mr. Dulaimi is now abandoned and unkempt, with broken windows and painted warnings not to touch it. The anti-aircraft gun he had placed in the middle of the street to menace residents is now gone.
Laith reckons that by 2007, at least 95 percent of Shiites had been pushed out of Al-Adel – “maybe 99 percent.” Since 2008, when executive orders required handing back property that had been illegally occupied, Al-Adel began to change and now has a population that is perhaps 50 percent Shiites returnees, and a further 10 percent Shiite newcomers. Sunnis make up the remaining 40 percent.
There are small signs of reconciliation between individual Shiite and Sunni families, against the backdrop of the sectarian and social cleavages that still define Iraq and its politics overall.
Recently, for example, Laith’s Sunni neighbors brought his family meat, in recognition that the Shiite family was commemorating a religious event that day. Laith has also given food parcels to the Sunni family during important celebrations like a graduation.
Risks to help neighbors
Despite the dangers a decade ago, Al-Adel was also a place with a history of sectarian mixing. That meant instances of some Sunni families providing secret support and sanctuary for Shiite neighbors, despite grave risks.
“We were always mixed, and the level of people is good, with teachers and educated people,” says Musab, an IT specialist whose Sunni family has lived in Al-Adel since the early 1990s. Militants ruling the neighborhood from 2005 made life excruciating, he says, but sometimes friendship for longtime Shiite neighbors trumped fear.
“Originally people in Al-Adel refused this [sectarian clash], and told Shiites, ‘Don’t move, stay here and defend yourselves,’” says Musab. But the situation became a “hot time” for Shiites, “you see more arms in the streets, more insurgents,” so that most felt they had no choice but to leave.
“Some Shiites stayed, but we helped them, brought them food, they are hiding with us, because they are our friends, they are members of our family,” says Musab. “They have loyalty for their neighborhood and said they would die here and not leave.”
To conserve that mutual sense of home, Musab describes how his family helped a number of Shiites stay in Al-Adel. Because most of the Sunni militants patrolling the neighborhood were outsiders, it was not too difficult to clothe Shiite neighbors in more traditional Sunni garb like white dish-dashas, long robes, he says, to disguise them if they had to go out.
“We stayed home all the time, or went out for a few hours to get food. It’s dangerous,” Musab recalls. “If you got caught [helping Shiites], they would slap you or make threats, or maybe kill you.”
Shiite neighbors could not be more grateful for such critical help, which reaffirmed their commitment to their neighborhood, says Musab, despite the spasm of ethnic cleansing.
The IT worker estimates that his work has taken him into more than 100 houses in Al-Adel, where long conversations often ensue.
“People say that if ISIS came here [today], ‘We will fight them, strike them,’ because they have a very bad experience with them in the past,” adds Musab. “Everyone, Sunni and Shiite, would fight them because [ISIS] is always our enemy, for all people.”
Neighborhood 'no longer mine'
Not every Baghdad neighborhood is experiencing such a rebirth, even as normalcy has returned to much of the capital since Iraqi security forces last year vanquished ISIS and their staunchly sectarian ideology.
For example, Laith grew up in the Amiriyah neighborhood, which is adjacent to Al-Adel to the west. That makes it closer to the former Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah and farther from downtown Baghdad. Few if any Shiites have been able to return.
Both neighborhoods had a similar sectarian mix, but Amiriyah was home to high-ranking Saddamists and former intelligence officials. Al-Adel, by contrast, was “more educated, with more intellectuals,” so the “mentality is different” and not so narrow-minded, says Laith.
“After 30 years we were sold out by our [Amiriyah] neighbors, it was a 180-degree turnaround,” says Laith. Ethnic cleansing started early there, in 2005, with big Shiite figures being killed. He has not been back to Amiriyah since he fled that year.
Every time he goes to the airport he has to pass Amiriyah and is reminded that the good memories of his childhood – and the feeling of home there – are gone.
“I roll down the window and just spit on it,” says Laith. “I just lost all my childhood memories in that area; all my memories have been ruined and damaged. All the friends I used to have, they have either fled or been killed.”
“The house, everything has been changed,” he says. “It is no longer mine.”
Hassan’s family has settled back in. But a Sunni family that was allowed to stay free of charge for over two years in the hope they would care for the place was instead neglectful and used it to store looted goods. Hassan and his friends had to force them out at gunpoint in 2008.
Friendly welcome back
But when they returned, the welcome from their Sunni neighbors who had stayed was overwhelmingly friendly; they recalled how Hassan’s family had been active and supportive to the community for more than 30 years, and had been sorry to see them go.
“Sunni friends here told us, ‘The dust of your feet is more precious than those [people] who came to invade your houses,’ ” recalls Hassan. “That means they were not satisfied with the situation back then, but were afraid for themselves.
“They said we were so precious to them,” says Hassan.
Such reconciliation echoes more and more widely in Baghdad, where residents have survived the paroxysms of violence and want to choose another way.
“Even those with hatred inside are keeping their mouths shut,” says Hassan. His love for home and his neighbors in Al-Adel means he would refuse the offer of a bigger home in another area. Or if sectarian violence were to return.
“If something like that happens again, I won’t leave my house,” says Hassan, resolutely. “Enough weakness. Let’s feel the strength.”