Sadr City Residents Flee Continued Violence

Thousands of families are fleeing the Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad as Shiite militiamen battle U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces. The fighting includes almost continuous air and ground strikes, aimed at disrupting mortar strikes from Sadr City into the Green Zone.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The exodus of civilians from Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood is growing. U.S. and Iraqi forces have been fighting Shiite militias there since late March. Relief workers say the number of people fleeing the violence could grow by tens of thousands. And a big question is what to do with those refugees? The Iraqi government is looking to house them in tent cities.

But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, some of the people have nowhere to live.

(Soundbite of people talking)

TOM BOWMAN: Jha(ph) Soccer Complex in eastern Baghdad, a short drive south from Sadr City, a massive and modern concrete complex, huge stadium lights loom high above. A cluster of people gather on a dusty patch just outside the gate.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)

BOWMAN: Young and old women dressed in black robes, young men in soccer jerseys and baseball caps. All said they are refugees, including a woman named, Basma(ph).

BASMA: (Through translator) My sister-in-law was shot by a sniper, so we had to leave.

BOWMAN: Another women, Benine(ph), holds her three-year-old daughter, as a distant explosion splits the air.

BENINE: (Through translator) Yes, many harbors are destroyed in the city.

BOWMAN: Familiar complaints, all her friends wounded or killed. They talked of widespread fear that had caused them and thousands of neighbors to flee.

BENINE: (Through translator) They told us here that they will set up tent for us. But the tent won't be here for another three days.

BOWMAN: Now they have no place to stay. They say they were forced out on an abandoned printing plant by the Iraqi Army. They arrived today, hearing they could find help at the stadium. As they talked, a motorcade of gleaming white SUVs curls into the stadium. Out hops Abdul Rahman Sultan, the Iraqi minister of displaced persons. A squat man in a gray suit, his back hair slicked down.

Mr. ADBUL RAHMAN SULTAN (Minister, Ministry of Displacement and Migration): (Through translator) We do expect more families, perhaps 200 or 400 families, so we're preparing ourselves for them.

BOWMAN: He tours the stadium complex, trailed by a flurry of underlings and guards, checking out bathroom facilities, the green as to turf field.

Mr. SULTAN: (Through translator) I do not know when the operations will start, but we have to prepare ourselves.

BOWMAN: Sultan waves off a question about those outside the gate, looters he calls them, all those who fled Sadr City have found refuge he says. But international and Iraqi refugee officials say they were those without any shelter, they just don't know how many. Dr. Mazen Abdallah is with the Red Crescent in Baghdad.

Dr. MAZEN ABDALLAH (Secretary General, Red Crescent, Baghdad): Maybe they are going without or any direction, or without any controlling. So they are randomly will be - (unintelligible) in many neighbors district. This is also to be difficult, but most like with or (unintelligible) and other offices also try to find and give them a hand to help them.

BOWMAN: Some of those who needs such help can be found just to the east of the soccer stadium and at the decrepit military barracks were some 50 people live, many of them children. Among them is Widad Jassom(ph) who came here with her husband and four children. She talks of a brother she left behind.

Ms. WIDAD JASSOM: (Through translator) They was some fighting and he was shot in the back. He is still in the hospital and I know nothing about him.

BOWMAN: Most depend on charity for food. They lived in hovels, a few carpets on a bare floor, a blanket for a door, a small refrigerator but with no electricity. Jassom's baby sleeps on the floor covered with flies. More of these refugees will be fleeing, a lot more, says Dr. Abdulla of the Red Crescent.

Dr. ABDALLAH: We can't see that we expect that. We will have a lot of other people, expecting maybe 100,000 persons that will leave the city.

BOWMAN: Before that happens, Abu Ihav(ph), a father of nine who escaped to this crumbling barracks, hopes someone would help the people here.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

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