Unrest Forces Iraqis Out of Neighborhoods

As sectarian violence spreads into previously calm and quiet Iraqi neighborhoods, a growing number of Iraqis are fleeing their homes to escape the bloodshed.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Growing sectarian violence is terrifying Iraqis, and that's leading to major migrations. Thousands of people are fleeing their homes, leaving neighborhoods that are now too dangerous for them. Some have lived in mixed neighborhoods for generations and are leaving more than houses behind. NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Shiites come here to this crowded office in Baghdad's Sadr City District and wait. Men stand around smoking and drinking cups of tea. The women, wrapped in black, wait outside. They've all come to the local migrant office to look for another place to live. Ahmer Halad(ph) works here. Surrounded by internal refugee applications, he said he's overwhelmed by the demand.

Mr. AHMER HALAD (Migrant Office Worker, Iraq): (Through Translator) Every day we get around 40, 50 families.

TARABAY: Halad says most come from Sunni-dominated areas, like Abu Ghraib, Taji and Dawr. Their numbers grew following the bombing of a sacred Shiite mosque in Samara in late February. The attack set off a wave of reprisal killings. Bodies of Sunnis and Shiites are found daily along streets and highways, tied up and left in abandoned vehicles. People are fleeing with nowhere to go.

Mr. HALAD: (Through Translator) We try to help them by providing housing, food, money, whatever we can do. They come carrying the threat letter and the ration card.

TARABAY: The Shiite families are here because of either being personally threatened or seen their Shiite neighbors killed. Standing against a wall in the office, smoking nervously, is Salah Gaberali(ph), a balding, skinny man. He said he used to live Medet(ph) in the south of Baghdad, until insurgents moved in about a year ago.

Mr. SALAH GABERALI (Shiite Refugee): (Through Translator) They kidnapped my nephew. They kidnapped him at 10:00 a.m., and we found him beheaded at 4:00 p.m.

TARABAY: Salah said he and his relatives were burying his nephew when more threats came.

Mr. GABERALI: (Through Translator) Some people are saying, today the son was beheaded and his uncle shall be next. We couldn't finish the funeral. Four days after, they attacked my house. They were in five cars. We were out of the house. I knew they would come back, so I escaped to Sadr City. I have been here for a year now.

TARABAY: The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration reported recently that more than 40,000 Iraqis have been displaced across the country because of the sectarian violence. More than half of those came after the Samara bombing. The Ministry says about a thousand people are forced to move each day because of violence and intimidation. Shiites are moving into tents in Shiite-dominated cities and provinces. Others have taken over former government buildings and schools. Outside the office, Shiite Karan Abuwashoman(ph) says he used to live near Fallujah, once one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. He'd been living there for more than 20 years until his Sunni neighbor broke into his house and stole his furniture. He blames Sunnis and in particular Wahabis, a reference to the strict brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. But in Iraq, the term Wahabi is used to describe any Islamic fanatic.

Mr. KARAN ABUWASHOMAN (Shiite Refugee): (Through Translator) This is what they did and they want to take over the whole area for themselves. I don't know if the Americans support them, but I'm sure it's them. I don't want to defend the Americans, but this is not an American game. It's the Wahabis and the Sunnis. My neighbor for 20 years kicked me out. Did the Americans tell him to do this?

TARABAY: Internal displacement has become so commonplace it's being satirized in the media. A local newspaper ran a cartoon of two families meeting in a neighborhood. One man says, we came here in the hope that things were better in your neighborhood. To which his friend replies, so did we.

It's not only Shiites who are abandoning their homes. Standing in the mess that is her new living room in the Sunni District of Baghdad is a petite young Sunni woman who out of fear will only give her name as Hum Anas(ph). She recently left her home in the neighborhood of Or(ph) after someone threatened her husband. She says the new place is only temporary, until they find a house in Yarmuk, a predominantly Sunni area where her in-laws live.

Ms. HUM ANAS (Sunni Refugee): (Through Translator) Whatever danger, we are safe in Yarmuk. It's easier than the danger we face in Or. It's serious in Or. I never thought I would see the day.

TARABAY: She says friends of her husband's had been kidnapped and the kidnappers demanded ransom just so the families can get the bodies back. She crosses and uncrosses her legs as she speaks, looking down at her hands and nervously twiddling her fingers. She says everyone sees the situation from their own perspective.

Ms. ANAS: (Through Translator) All the ones that are called are Sunnis. No one Shiite was called. So when we complain about the miserable security situation to our Shiite neighbors, they were all amazed. They said Or was a safe area.

TARABAY: She and her husband see each other only in secret now because of the threats against him. Now that they've left their house, she wonders whether the next step will be to leave the country.

Ms ANAS: (Through Translator) The house was so nice. Just like (unintelligible) land. There is a memory in every corner of the house. A person has a story for how the house was called. There is a story for every room.

TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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