Iraqis' Deep Wounds Hamper Resettlement

Security is improving in Iraq. After the recent sectarian violence that ripped apart neighborhoods and whole villages, some people are taking a risk and moving back home. That re-integration is bringing tensions and triumphs to different areas of the country.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Barack Obama will likely find a situation that's still dire, yet it has improved enough that a few Iraqis who fled for their lives are starting to return. Sectarian violence, among other problems, led four-and-a-half million Iraqis to leave their homes. Now some feel secure enough to try reclaiming their old lives.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports that it's not easy.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: At first it seemed as if the past few bloody years had never happened. The Asaf(ph) family house was in good condition, despite having been empty for more than a year. The neighbors seemed pleased to see them. Their town, Jaballah(ph), south of Baghdad was now in the control of government forces. They were happy to be home. But then 22-year-old Manaf noticed something outside his door.

Mr. MANAF ASAF: (Through translator) They put an X mark in blue chalk on the outer wall to our house; then somebody jumped over the fence and pulled all the flowers out from our garden; then they stopped picking up the trash.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The family says people refer to their house as the Wahabi(ph) house. Wahabis follow a strain of strict Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. Shiites in Iraq use the term as a slur. For Manaf it was all too familiar. He and his brother had been threatened in 2007, which is why the family fled their home originally.

Now their mother and father and he and his brother wake up every morning looking for bombs in their garden, and they don't wander around after dark.

Mr. ASAF: (Through translator) We just go out for the essentials. I go straight to college and come straight back on the school bus to my door. We always take precautions when we hear someone knocking. We check from the balcony to see who's there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The town of Jaballah sits amid wheat fields and irrigation ditches near an ancient Babylonian ruin at the end of a long, straight country road. The bucolic calm here hides an ugly past. Jaballah is nestled in the very heart of the area long known as the Triangle of Death. During the worst of the sectarian fighting, Shiite militiaman here would exchange mortar and rocket fire with the Sunni militants in a nearby village. This town was once 25 percent Sunni Muslim but hundreds of Sunnis were killed in sectarian fighting and thousands left their homes, leaving Jaballah cleansed.

When NPR reporters first arrived to talk to the Sunni family, a Shiite family from across the road was visiting. It wasn't until they left that Manaf and his family opened up.

Mr. ASAF: (Through translator) When we talk among us Sunnis, we can get things off our chests. We can't speak in front of Shiites because we are afraid.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The wounds of civil war are still festering here. People mistrust one another. While there's no doubt that sectarian attacks are dramatically down all over Iraq, Manaf and his family fear that the divisions have merely been temporarily covered with a blanket of security.

Mr. ASAF: (Through translator) The minute the government weakens, they will kill ten times more than before. They will burn us alive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Manaf's family are trying to sell their house and they're warning their Sunni friends not to come back. Across the street, the patriarch of the Shiite family, Ali Abdul Radaisa(ph), also feels despondent about the chances for real reconciliation. Ali says Iraqis have a long memory and accounts will have to be settled eventually for everything that's happened.

Mr. ALI ABDUL RADAISA (Shiite Resident): (Through translator) Nothing will be forgotten. These things will live with us and into future generations. I will tell it to my son and my son will tell it to his son.

(Soundbite of men yelling)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the Sadr City district of Baghdad, the perils of coming home are taking a different form. Until a recent government offensive, the Mahdi Army militia was in total control of this vast Shiite slum of two million people. Now government forces patrol the streets and the militiamen are nowhere to be seen.

Nemma Halled(ph) had been hiding from the Mahdi Army in Syria until a month ago.

Mr. NEMMA HALLED (Sadr City Resident): (Through translator) I have had two friends. One of them lived four houses away from my house. The Mahdi Army killed them. The second friend lived five houses away. He was killed too. Another four friends were taken from their vehicles, killed by the Mahdi Army also.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Halled was a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, as were his friends who were killed. The Mahdi Army had been systematically hunting them down. He decided to return only after the Iraqi Army took control of Sadr City. He sits in the house of a friend, who was also threatened by the militia because he's a policeman. His friend Mohamed says a group of Mahdi Army men came by the house the other day to apologize.

MOHAMED: (Through translator) They apologized because they were scared that people would tell on them. The realized their weakness; they knew that one day they would be arrested.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The two friends can barely contain their glee. Former Baathist Nemma Halled says the militiamen should all be at the very least publicly humiliated.

Mr. HALLED: (Through translator) They should capture the criminals and put them on TV and show their bad deeds to everyone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They see no irony in the fact that many of the Mahdi Army members in their neighborhood are now the ones on the run. Some have fled to Syria and Iran, just like they did. The tables have turned, the men say, and they are now the ones with the power, holding their enemies lives in their hands.

Others here though remain powerless, wanting to go home but unable to. A Shiite, Abu Sarrah(ph), used to live in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. The sectarian conflict left him destitute. Sunni insurgents used his spare parts shop as a base and stole all of his equipment. Later he was chased out of his home.

Mr. ABU SARRAH: (Through translator) I couldn't rent my house so I asked a Sunni friend nearby to live in my house as a guard. But then after a few months I saw him in Syria. He said he had fled as well and that he had given my house to one of his workers; then that worker gave it to a relative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That family is so far refusing to leave despite repeated entreaties. A few weeks ago Abu Sarrah showed up one more time.

Mr. SARRAH: (Through translator) I went with respected people in the neighborhood, and he promised to leave the house on the first of July but I don't believe him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He doesn't think the neighbors will help him enforce the deal.

Mr. SARRAH: (Through translator) They are afraid. Our neighbors are afraid to help us because they don't know what the consequences will be. Maybe gangs will target them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Relationships have been fractured by fear, he acknowledges. The whole experience has left him wondering whether he should simply give up. Omusis(ph), a mother of two, has already given up. Her father was kidnapped in Baghdad and he's still missing. She knows he's dead. The whole family moved down to the southern city of Hillah(ph), and she says they will never go back to the capital.

OMUSIS: It brings back memories, bad memories, you know. They cannot be living the life they were living before, you see? My mother is afraid that something might happen to my brothers, you know. You know, they might be kidnapped also or be killed by any means, you know. It's not safe. Yeah, so it's better to live in Hillah and not Baghdad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Simply thinking about Baghdad terrifies and saddens her. She never again wants to see the neighborhood where she grew up.

OMUSIS: Baghdad is - what can I say - (foreign language spoken) to us, we don't want to turn back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Omusis says that she too cannot forgive or forget what happened.

OMUSIS: And I don't know how it started (unintelligible) this. It would take a long time to, you know, get back and everyone would love another. It needs a miracle. Yeah, it needs a miracle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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