Iraqis fleeing the 'slaughter farm'

Posted in Iraq | 19-May-06 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: International Herald Tribune

Roula Kubba, 13, whose family plans to leave Baghdad because of the rising sectarian violence. They live in the wealthy…
Roula Kubba, 13, whose family plans to leave Baghdad because of the rising sectarian violence. They live in the wealthy Mansour district.
Deaths run like water through the life of the Bahjat family. A barber. Three grocers. Four neighbors. Two men who ran a currency exchange shop.

But when six armed men stormed into their sons' primary school this month, shot a guard to death, and left fliers ordering it to close, Assad Bahjat knew it was time to leave.

"The main thing now is to just get out of Iraq," said Bahjat, standing in a room heaped with suitcases and bedroom furniture in eastern Baghdad.

"It's like we are in hell, looking for a piece of straw to grab onto," Bahjat said. "Even with more time, the security will not improve."

Iraqis have been leaving Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Jordan is believed to have close to a million Iraqis, and Syrian cities also have growing Iraqi populations. But since the bombing of a shrine in Samarra sparked a sectarian rampage, crime and killing has spread further through Iraqi society, paralyzing neighborhoods and smashing families.

Now, on the brink of a new, permanent government, Iraqis are expressing the darkest view of their future in three years, and larger numbers are choosing to leave.

"We're like sheep at a slaughter farm," said a businessman, who is arranging a move to Jordan. "Before we were 2,000, and now we are 200. We are just waiting for our time."

'Now you feel, it is much more dangerous for yourself," the businessman said. "All Iraqis are talking like this."

The migration is difficult to count. Iraq's Ministry for Migration said it does not keep track.

In one rough indicator, the Ministry of Education has issued 39,554 letters permitting parents to take their children's academic records abroad since 2004, indicating that about that many families have left.

It issued twice as many letters in 2005, as in 2004, said Sabah al-Jaff, the director of the examination department at the ministry.

One other clue is the number of new passports issued - 1.85 million in the last 10 months.

One particularly devastating event, and a turning point for many middle class Iraqis, was the days of sectarian violence after the bombing of the Samarra shrine.

The violence was shocking: Gangs of Shiites in Baghdad pulled Sunni Arabs out of houses and mosques and killed them in a spree that sparked retaliatory attacks and displaced 14,500 families from the end of February to early May, according to the Ministry for Migration.

Even worse, however, was how little the government did to stop the violence. That failure boded ominously for the future, leaving many Iraqis feeling that the government was incapable of protecting them and even more darkly, that it helped in the killing.

"Now I am isolated," said Monkath Abdul Razzaq, a middle class Sunni Arab, who decided to leave after the bombing.

"I have no government. I have no protection from the government. Anyone can come to my house, take me, kill me, and throw me in the trash."

Traces of the leaving are sprinkled throughout daily life. Abdul Razzaq, who will move his family to Syria next month, where he has already rented an apartment, said a fistfight broke out while he waited for five hours in a packed passport office to fill out applications for his two young sons.

In Salheyah, a busy commercial district in central Baghdad, bus companies that specialize in Syria and Jordan say ticket sales have surged.

Karim al-Ani, the owner of one of the firms, Tiger Company, said a busy day last year used to be three buses, but in recent months, it comes close to 10.

"Before it was more tourists," he said. "Now we are taking everything, even furniture."

“The main thing now is to just get out of Iraq,” said Assad Bahjat, with his wife, Eileen, and their…
“The main thing now is to just get out of Iraq,” said Assad Bahjat, with his wife, Eileen, and their two children, Elvis, left, and Andres.
The effects of the leaving can be seen in neighborhoods here. While much of the city bustles during daytime hours, the more war-torn areas, like Dora in the south and Ameriya, Ghazaliya, and Khadra in the west, are eerily empty at midday. On Bahjat's block in Dora, only about five houses out of 40 remain occupied.

Empty houses in the area are scrawled with the words, "Omar Brigade," a Sunni group that kills Shiites.

Residents have been known to protest, at least on paper. In an act of helpless fury this winter, a large banner hung across a house in Dora that read: "Do God and Islam agree that I should leave my house to live in a camp with my five children and wife?"

"Shadows," said Eileen Bahjat, Assad's wife, standing with her two sons and describing what is left in the neighborhood. "Shadows and killing."

In Dora, one of the worst areas in all of Baghdad, public life had ground to a halt. Four teachers have been killed in the past 10 days in Bahjat's area alone and the Ahmed al-Waily primary school where the Bahjat boys, ages 12 and 8, studied, may not be able to hold final exams because of the killings. In another set of killings, three teachers from the Al Batoul secondary school were shot in the 60th Street area of Dora in late April.

Trash is collected only sporadically. On April 3, insurgents shot seven garbage collectors to death near their truck, and their bodies lay in the area for eight hours before the authorities could collect them, according to Naeem al-Kaabi, deputy mayor for municipal affairs in Baghdad. In all, 312 trash workers have been killed in Baghdad over the past six months.

"Sunnis, Shiites, Christians," said Bahjat, who this month moved his family to New Baghdad, an eastern suburb, to live with a relative, before leaving for Syria. "They just want to empty this place of all people."

"We must start from zero," he said. "Maybe under zero. But there is no other choice."

It is more than just the killing that has sapped hope for the future. Iraqis have waited for five months for a permanent government, after voting in a national election in December, and though political leaders are on the brink of announcing it, some Iraqis say the amount of haggling it took to form makes them skeptical it will be able to solve bigger problems.

Abd al-Kareem al-Mahamedawy, a tribal sheik from Amara in southern Iraq who fought for years against Saddam Hussein, compared the process to "giving birth to a deformed child."

"The time it took to form this government, the killing, the lack of protection for the people, has killed the hope inside Iraqis and brought them to this crossroad," he said.

As if to underscore the point, a tragedy unfolded just outside Mahamedawy's gate, where an extended family gathered, full of nervous movement, absorbed the news of the execution of their 10-year- old son by kidnappers. A woman brought her hands to her head in the time-worn motion of mourning.

Even with the resolve to leave, many departing Iraqis said they consider the move only temporary and would return at any sign of improvement. Some hope the politics might succeed in uniting Iraq's fractious groups and stemming the tide of the killings.

Cars and furniture are sold, but those who can afford it, such as the Abdul Razzaq family, hang onto their properties. In Khadra in western Baghdad, Nesma Abdul Razzaq, Monkath's wife, has spent the past months carefully wrapping their photographs, vases, and furniture in cloth, and packing them in boxes. She spoke of the sadness of the empty rooms and the pain of having to build a new life in a strange place.

"I have a rage inside myself," Nesma Abdul Razzaq said by telephone, as her area, since last autumn, has become unsafe for a western reporter to visit. "I feel desperate."

"I don't want to leave Iraq. But I have to for the kids. They have seen enough."

Mona Mahmoud, Sahar Nageeb and Qais Mizher contributed reporting for this article.