Iraqis Displaced By Sectarian Battles Remain In Limbo

January 11, 2011

Kelly McEvers

In Baghdad, ever since the brutal sectarian war in 2006 and 2007, the city has become a collection of enclaves, where, for the most part, Shiites live with Shiites and Sunnis live with Sunnis.

This kind of separation is what happens after a civil war. Usually, though, the winners stay and the losers leave.

Millions of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, did leave, but hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunnis and Shiites have stayed, in the hopes that someday they'll either be able to move back to their old neighborhoods or at least sell their property and re-settle for good. That, however, is looking less and less likely.

When Mortada Mohammad Rasul starts to tell his story, he first bows his head to pull himself together. 

Rasul's family bought their house 40 years ago. His grandfather, a baker and a barber, borrowed the equivalent of $16,000 for eight bedrooms and a big garden on a main street. After the grandfather died, his sons and grandsons paid off the debt.

It was a good neighborhood, Rasul says, a mixed neighborhood. For decades, his Shiite family thought nothing of the fact that their neighbors were Sunnis.

Then in 2006, Sunni extremists took over, and the neighbors kidnapped Rasul's brother.

"When I got the news that my brother was kidnapped, immediately I called my family and I told them, 'Leave the house immediately,'" Rasul says.

The kidnappers contacted Rasul by phone and demanded a ransom. Then, Rasul believes, his brother was sold to another group. Negotiations ended. Three days later, Rasul found his brother in the morgue.

"The way he was killed is that just like they suffocated him," he says. "They wrapped ... tape around his head, his nose, his mouth, so he couldn't breathe, and he died."

Since that day, Rasul has spent only a handful of nights at his family home.

Instead, he couch-surfs, sometimes sleeping on the floor at his older brother's house, sometimes crashing with friends.

With no job, he can't afford to rent a new house. And no one in his now exclusively Sunni neighborhood will buy his old house. Potential buyers know he's desperate, that he'll never live there again.

They're just waiting for him to drop the price to almost nothing.

"It's only the house that we have. Our fortune, our wealth is the house and nothing but the house," he says. "If we lose it, it means we are done, we are over."

Middle-Class Shift

This is the dilemma of hundreds of thousands of Baghdad families who were forced to flee during the sectarian war: The value of the old house is going down, but rents are going up. That means the family's worth is disappearing.

Pollster and sociologist Ahmed Qassim says more than half of the city's displaced families once identified themselves as upper or middle class. But 82 percent of a recent sampling of displaced Baghdadis said they were barely making ends meet.

Qassim says one portion of Baghdad's middle class is withering away while another one -- the newly formed political class -- is taking its place.

But the losers are still losers, and they're both Shiite and Sunni. The Iraqi government does occasionally give displaced families cash stipends of a few hundred dollars. Most say that's not enough.

Abdulkhaliq Zangana for years headed the Iraqi parliament's displacement committee. He says the issue simply is not a priority, that officials would just prefer it went away.

"The majority of those who were displaced, they were anti-government," Zangana says.

Reclaiming Property

So, the official thinking goes, why should the government help them?

Two years ago, an Iraqi judge and an American scholar proposed that Iraq use its burgeoning oil wealth to form arbitration panels that would hear each displaced family's case and compensate people who could not return to their original homes. But no such program is under way. Instead, the registration for displaced families is closed.

The sad reality is that after a civil war, property is rarely given back. Scholars say it takes generations for people to begin the process of reclaiming what's theirs -- if it happens at all.

Ibrahim Ismail Ibrahim doesn't have that kind of time.

His grandfather was a Sunni cleric who scrimped and saved to build a house back in the '60s. Then his father sold the house and loaned Ibrahim the money to build his own.

Ibrahim never had a chance to pay the money back. In 2007, his father and three brothers were killed by men he believes were linked to a Shiite militia. Ibrahim fled the house.

He now rents a house for his mother, his wife and his five children. But Ibrahim is running out of money, and his mother is ill.

When asked why he doesn't just sell the house and use the money to take care of his mother, Ibrahim says it's her idea to keep the house.

"She's the one who's telling me, 'Don't ever sell the house,'" he says.

She tells him, "'If you sell the house, you're gonna lose everything. If you don't own a house, you don't have a country. When all else fails, you have to have somewhere to go.'" Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.