In Iraq, Those Displaced By Violence Return Home

After the holy month of Ramadan, hundreds of families displaced by sectarian fighting began returning to the divided neighborhood of Ghazaliyah. To help the process, the U.S. military has been visiting the returnees.

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. Millions of Iraqis fled their homes over the past few years. Now with the violence receding, some families are coming back, especially in Baghdad. The Iraqi government is trying to speed the process with financial incentives and other measures. But while many neighborhoods are now relatively calm, sectarian tensions remain. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ahmed Houmadi Abed(ph) clutches the deeds to his house to show the Iraqi army officer. Are you Shia or Sunni? the officer asks. It makes me sad that you need to know, but I'm a Sunni, Houmadi tells them. The officer looks over the paperwork and stamps it. Houmadi has now officially registered as a returnee to the Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah. Last month, the Iraqi government set up return facilitation centers like this one in most sections of the capital. On this day, there's a steady stream of people coming to register their return. Iraqi army officers take down the information, make sure the paperwork is in order, and settle any property disputes here. Since September 1, over 240 families have moved back to their homes in Ghazaliyah. Some 1,700 families, though, fled all of Ghazaliyah during the worst of the sectarian violence. One of the returnees, Ali Talfik Hameed(ph) says improved security persuaded him it was safe to return.

Mr. ALI TALFIK HAMEED: (Through Translator) I thought long and hard about it. I visited the neighborhood to get a sense of the security situation, and it seemed a lot better. Now army checkpoints are everywhere. I feel like the decision to come back was a good one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the process of bringing people back to their neighborhoods hasn't benefited everyone.

(Soundbite of men conversing in Arabic)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Two young men have come to the Ghazaliyah center complaining that their father has been arrested by the Iraqi army because he refused to vacate the house he was squatting in. According to a new government decree, those who do not leave homes that don't belong to them face prosecution under Iraqi antiterrorism legislation. Staff Major Hussein Ali(ph) is the Iraqi army commander in this part of Ghazaliyah.

Staff Major HUSSEIN ALI (Commander, Iraqi Army): (Through Translator) Now the real owners of the houses are showing up and asking to get their houses back. And according to law, squatters have to leave. If they don't do it, then the owner has the right to ask the army to use force to eject them, and we do. The law says that people can be arrested and sent to court.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With that threat hanging over them, most squatters are reluctantly opting to leave, even if they have nowhere to go. A large, white flatbed truck is parked outside a sand-colored home in Ghazaliyah. Family members drag out their belongings stuffed into garbage bags and load them onto the truck. Ahmad Ibrahim(ph) has been living here since he was displaced from a neighboring poor Shiite district. He says he's too afraid to go back there, but he's being forced to leave this house.

Mr. AHMAD IBRAHIM: (Through Translator) I can't return to my area because there is no security there. Some families I know returned, but they were attacked and their houses were blown up. The area is still controlled by al-Qaeda.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So now Ibrahim is moving to another Shiite neighborhood. The Iraqi government is offering a monthly stipend of about $280 to help families in similar predicaments, but Ibrahim says it's not enough. He says the government is trying to make people go back to their original homes in order to bolster the appearance that security has improved everywhere in the capital. Ibrahim says it has not.

Mr. IBRAHIM: (Through Translator) Sectarianism has not been eradicated. What they did is put up walls to isolate us, and they left us living behind those walls.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ghazaliyah is an example of those continuing divisions. During the worst of the sectarian violence, there was massive displacement here. This once mixed neighborhood was cleansed. The northern part is mostly Shiite now. The southern districts are largely Sunni. And reversing that process won't be easy.

(Soundbite of knocking)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's night, and members of the U.S. 1st Squadron 75th Cavalry Regiment are checking up on a recently returned Sunni family to the mainly Shiite part of Ghazaliyah. In the past month, there have been no attacks against U.S. forces in the neighborhood. U.S. soldiers here now spend most of their time facilitating the return of families to their original homes and tracking any sectarian incidents that occur. The Americans accompanied by the Iraqi police are invited inside the home of returnee Gazi Ismael(ph). Captain Michael Kolton checks to see if everything's alright.

Captain MICHAEL KOLTON (1st Squadron 75th Cavalry Regiment, U.S. Army): I know that you probably don't need anything from us, but we just wanted to say welcome to the neighborhood. Welcome back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gazi Ismael responds that his neighbor has just received a death threat.

Mr. GAZI ISMAEL: (Through Translator) They threw an envelop with a bullet inside it at his house. And there was a note saying we are warning you not to stay.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last week, a Shiite man was killed in the Sunni part of town. The U.S. military here says that for the most part the process of getting people back to their homes has been peaceful here, but there are at least two acts of intimidation a week in Ghazaliyah. Captain Robert Gillespie with the 1-75 acknowledges that sectarian tensions remain, but he says returning people to their homes is their number one priority now.

Captain ROBERT GILLESPIE (1st Squadron 75th Cavalry Regiment, U.S. Army): This is both the most significant - the primary piece that's left remaining in terms of getting Baghdad back to a state of normalcy and undoing what was done previously.

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

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