STEVE INSKEEP, host:
American troops are starting to come home from Iraq, but many Iraqis have not yet returned to their homes. In the violence since the U.S. invasion, about 4 million Iraqis had to leave their homes. About 2 million fled the country entirely, and many are still outside its borders. Throughout the war, NPR's Deborah Amos has spent much of her time with Iraqis unmoored in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Many of them are Sunni Muslims, a minority sect in Iraq, which is why her new book is called "Eclipse of the Sunnis." And Deborah Amos joins us now. Deborah, welcome again.
DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: Many people will know Deborah from guest-hosting this very program. And although this book is about - primarily about Sunnis, it really seems, Deborah, to be a story of the abuse of minorities. In fact, early on, you tell the story of Iraqi Christians. Can you describe what that community was like before the war? I think it's unfamiliar to people.
AMOS: Well, that was the first strand of the old Iraq that unraveled after the invasion. Before the war, Iraqi Christians were about 3 percent of the population. After the war, as Iraq became a more tribal society, the Christians found themselves trapped by Islamists who believed that they had no place in the country, and that's when much of the community began to move. The other thing to know about them is they had a place to go. There are vibrant Christian communities across borders in Syria, in Lebanon, and even in Jordan.
INSKEEP: Was it in one of those Christian communities outside of Iraq that you first found a young man named Nabras Nasir(ph)?
AMOS: It was. Nabras's story is so astonishing because it's emblematic of what happened to so many Christians during that time. He was living in Dora, which was a mixed neighborhood south of Baghdad. And he was a young man who, even in the height of the violence, still wanted to go to college. And every morning at 7, he would leave his house to go work on his applications. That brought him to the attention of a group of local al-Qaida guys who thought that if he was going somewhere every day at 7 a.m., he must be working for the Americans.
They kidnapped him, put him in a local jail, which essentially was a basement of a house, and he and 11 people were brought to trial. And all but Nabras were beheaded, and he was forced to watch all of these beheadings. He was eventually released, but they said to him, Christians do not belong in Iraq. You should know that he is now in California. He has actually been given resettlement, although I think he will spend the rest of his life reliving those moments in that dungeon.
INSKEEP: And of course, we're talking about just one of the first groups to be targeted here, Christians. Very soon, Muslims were turning against one another, different sects of Muslims.
AMOS: And this is the period where it is pretty universal. There were Sunnis leaving. There were Shiites leaving. They were heading for the exits. As time went on and what - in Iraq, there was a sectarian civil war. Those numbers changed. It became a Sunni exodus, and this is what I witnessed in Damascus through 2007, even through the American surge. The primary sectarian orientation of exiles who were arriving in Damascus were Sunni, and this is where it stands today. The majority of the exiles are Sunnis.
INSKEEP: And of course, what you're telling us there is that the majority in Iraq, the Shiites, turned against another very, very large minority, the Sunnis. And that refugee flow suggests that in large measure, the Sunnis lost the civil war.
AMOS: They did, Steve, and this was a historic, demographic shift, and this is unusual in the Middle East. In the Middle East, Sunnis are the majority in almost every other country. And here's something else that's very new in an exile population. There's really no precedent for it.
One of the things that happened during the invasion is Iraqis got all the technology that Saddam denied them, and they took to it immediately. They're on their cell phones. They're on instant messaging. They're watching satellite television. They voted in this election. They are still part of the community of Iraq, and I think of this country now as something that is a virtual country, much bigger than its borders. These refugees are watching politics. They pay very close attention. And so this crisis with refugees can't be ignored away, because they aren't gone.
INSKEEP: You also write a lot about women and children among these millions of mostly Sunni refugees now. And I say women and children because although there are men among the refugees, some men stayed behind, some men are dead. How have those women made a living?
AMOS: One way to survive was to become a prostitute. And many, many of them did. And I've written a whole chapter about it because it was so hard to gain the trust of those women and get them to talk to me. It took me a long, long time to do it. And I eventually was able to go to one of these nightclubs and profile these women.
INSKEEP: Nightclubs - what sort of nightclub?
AMOS: Well, there's a band, there's alcohol on the tables, and then there is always a big, round dance floor. And this is where the women go. They dance with each other, and the men dance with each other, because any pairing is seen as a - business negotiations, which doesn't happen 'til the end of the evening. And I spent some time in the ladies' room before the dancing commenced. And you know, women opened their cell phones, and everybody's showing pictures of their kids before they have to go out and sell their bodies.
INSKEEP: And in some cases, they're marketing children, aren't they?
AMOS: They are. There has been a really tragic number of young girls and boys who have been trafficked. Sometimes it is parents who have trafficked their kids. I talked to some people in the U.N. who have been working on this issue. They'll sit a family down when they find out about it and they say, look, we can give you $200 a month if you'll take your child out of this business. And the family says, $200 a month? She can make $200 a night. And this is a sign of deep despair.
INSKEEP: Is this in some way - the presence of millions of refugees all these years later - something of an indictment of Iraq? For all of the improvements that have been described over the last couple of years, you have people who are living miserable lives outside their home countries and still, they don't feel secure coming home.
AMOS: One of the reasons I wanted to call this book "The Eclipse of the Sunnis" is because I thought that part of the story has been underreported and misunderstood. They are a testament to how far Iraq still needs to go. You can have a vote; you can have democracy in the country. But here's the problem: Majority rule is not really democracy in the way that democracy works. In our country, we have the rule of law. We have protections for minorities. We have religious protections. That is still missing. And as long as that is missing, these refugees will not come back because they don't feel they have protections. They don't feel their children have a future. And so that is why it's still a crisis.
INSKEEP: Deborah Amos, NPR correspondent, familiar voice on this program, and author of "Eclipse of the Sunnis." Deborah, thanks very much.
AMOS: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: You can find excerpts of Deb's stories of Iraqi refugees online. You'll find links to our Twitter accounts @MORNINGEDITION and @NPRInskeep.
This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.