Iraqi Refugees Point to Conflict as Civil War
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Iraq is in the middle of an internal refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, have registered as internal refugees in recent months. They fled their homes after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February. Some 20,000 registered in the last 10 days of July alone. And to some, that desperate movement of people is proof that an Iraqi civil war is already underway.
NPR's Tom Bullock reports from Baghdad.
TOM BULLOCK reporting:
It was a first of its kind in Iraq.
(Soundbite of television broadcast)
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
BULLOCK: A nationally televised program asking a simple question: has the civil war already begun? On one side, a high-ranking member of the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential Sunni group, on the other, an equally well-known Shiite cleric.
(Soundbite of television broadcast)
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)
BULLOCK: This was billed as a debate and the two men did argue from time to time, but not about their answer. The Shiite put it this way.
Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) We are already in the middle of a civil war.
BULLOCK: The Sunni agreed.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) To say that the Shiites is killing the Sunni and the Sunni is killing the Shiite, unfortunately, is true. Yes, regrettably, this is what's happening now.
BULLOCK: Near the end of the program, the Sunni and Shiite took questions from the audience. No one doubted their conclusion. Most simply asked: what do we do now? For a growing number of Iraqis, the only answer is to flee their homes and neighborhoods and become refugees.
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)
BULLOCK: In the Kadasia(ph) neighborhood in southwest Baghdad stands the Um Atubo(ph) mosque. Its 8-foot high compound walls once housed a garden, now they protect a makeshift refugee camp run by the Iraqi Red Crescent.
This camp itself is a stark reminder of how high sectarian tensions are in Iraq. Um Atubo is a Sunni mosque located in a Sunni neighborhood. All those living here are Sunnis drawn here because of the shelter and the fact they believe the guards of the mosque will protect them from Shiite death squads.
Mr. NAZIR SUBI CHAZEL(ph) (Director, Red Crescents Disaster Response Team, Baghdad): (Through translator) We start working in this camp on the 10th of July and we started having the families on the next day, the 11th.
BULLOCK: Nazir Subi Chazel heads the Red Crescents Disaster Response Team in Baghdad.
Mr. CHAZEL: (Through translator) We have 53 tents in this camp. Each tent can house six people.
BULLOCK: But a quick look around shows this camp is horribly overcrowded, with families of nine or more under each tent. One extended family of 16 huddles together in one of the tents near the compound's back wall. All of the residents tell similar stories of being forced to flee sectarian violence, executions by the Shiite death squads of the Mahdi Army.
Oum Abdullah(ph) is one of them, a 24-year-old mother who easily looks twice her age. Until a few weeks ago, Oum Abdullah and her family lived in the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora.
Ms. OUM ABDULLAH: (Through translator) We fled after they burned my husband's shop. Then they started killing his relatives and killing our neighbors. They broke into the houses and slaughtered them.
BULLOCK: Fifty-three-year-old Alliah Hussein(ph) is another.
Ms. ALLIAH HUSSEIN: (Through translator) Three months back, the Mahdi Army approached the area. They said that not one Sunni is to be here and everyone who is must leave the area.
BULLOCK: Alliah Hussein starts to cry as she tells her story. Her eyes grow angry as she looks around the camp.
Ms. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) Me, what can I do? I can only say, God, get my revenge. God, get my revenge. And, God, get my revenge.
BULLOCK: There are many Shiite refugees demanding the same thing these days. The Shiites have their own camps in Shiite strongholds, many guarded by the same militias Iraqi and U.S. officials say are targeting Sunnis.
Most refugee camps were set up after the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, an attack which spawned the current wave of sectarian killings and some say marked the real start of the Iraqi civil war.
Mr. MUHAMMAD SAFU MUHAMMAD(ph) (Director General, Ministry of Displaced People, Iraq): (Speaking foreign language)
BULLOCK: Muhammad Safu Muhammad is a director general at Iraq's Ministry of Displaced People. His job is to tally the number of those who have fled their homes. Muhammad doesn't believe the civil war has started in Iraq, but he warns the refugee crisis, which continues to grow, just might set it off.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: (Through translator) What we fear is people who are leaving from mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. Recently, we have witnessed an attempt to eliminate such neighborhoods, to turn them into closed areas only for Shiites or only for Sunnis. This is what we fear. God forbid, this is a bad thing because it can lead to all-out war.
BULLOCK: Iraq's Ministry of Displaced Persons estimates more than 182,000 Iraqis have registered as internally displaced persons, and this is hardly the definitive number.
Mr. ALI JUWAD: (Through translator) I was born in Hamiriyah(ph) and have lived my 27 years in Hamiriyah.
BULLOCK: Ali Juwad is a Shiite. Hamiriyah is a largely Sunni neighborhood and one of the most dangerous in Baghdad.
Mr. JUWAD: (Through translator) Some time back, a number of men were killed in Hamiriyah, mostly Shiites. Next day, we received a threat telling us that we have to leave our houses in three days.
BULLOCK: The threat came in the form of a letter typed on a yellow piece of paper folded neatly inside an envelope with Air Mail printed in English on the front. Ali's name was handwritten across the envelope. The letter read:
Unidentified Man #3: (Reading) You bastards have sold out your religion and people. That is why we are giving you three days to leave your house for good, or else punishment shall be punishment. We have warned you.
BULLOCK: The threat letter bore the logo of the Mujahidin Shura, an umbrella group for Sunni insurgents. A single AK-47 bullet left inside the envelope to show they were serious.
Mr. JUWAD: (Through translator) To tell you the truth, the moment we saw the threat we were amazed, astonished, and totally paralyzed. We didn't know what to do. At the same time, within hours, we took the important papers and left. We didn't even take anything with us.
BULLOCK: In a way, Ali Juwad is lucky. He was forced to become a refugee, but rather than going to a Shiite camp, he and his family are staying with cousins and uncles. Ali Juwad also ran a successful business, an Internet café. He just shut it down.
Mr. JUWAD: (Through translator) I have closed my Internet café because I don't know how to think or work. I am looking to leave this country.
BULLOCK: Ali says Iraqis are being killed for no logical reason. We have no control over our names or our religious sects, he says. Both are decided by our parents at birth.
Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad.
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