Millions of refugees flee fighting in Iraq

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Nafei Hanna did not want to betray his brother, but he was scared. His captors had guns; he did not. They could see; he was blindfolded. They threatened to cut off his head if he did not cooperate.

He gave in. He told them his brother Sabri’s name and confirmed that Sabri, too, worked for the Americans in Iraq. Then his relatives handed over $30,000 in ransom money, and Hanna, badly beaten, was set free. His brother stayed on the job despite the threat.

Eight days later, Sabri’s body was found by the side of the road outside Baghdad. “Death caused by gunshot wound,” read the death certificate.

Hanna got the message, especially after his eldest son, also a driver for the Americans, was held for ransom. No one who worked with the Americans was safe. He buried his brother, took his family and fled.

“Because I gave those terrorists the information on my brother, he was followed and pulled over, and they shot him,” said Hanna, a broken man living in a small, dark apartment in Damascus, the Syrian capital. “We have no future in Syria, but we can’t go back to Iraq.”

Hanna and his family — including a young son he named Bremer, after Paul Bremer, the American civilian who led the early rebuilding effort in Iraq — joined the
4 million Iraqis who have left their homes as sectarian fighting has spread through Iraq like a cancer.

Roughly half have sought safety in quieter parts of Iraq, others have gone into Syria and Jordan as refugees, with some spillover into Lebanon and Egypt. Each day, the U.N. refugee agency estimates, an additional 2,000 Iraqis join their ranks.

The desperate flight marks the largest movement of people inside the Middle East since hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled after fighting broke out in 1948 when the state of Israel was established.

Potential destabilization
This latest upheaval is unsettling the Middle East, where the rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims has grown more violent, and attacks have increased on the dwindling number of Christians.

Edward Djerejian, a senior adviser to the Iraq Study Group and director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, warns that the sectarian strife inside Iraq may spread as the country’s Sunnis and Shias carry their grievances to their new homes.

“Syria and Jordan are both Sunni-majority countries, and if there are large numbers of Shias going across the border, that could exacerbate Sunni-Shia tensions,” said Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to both Syria and Israel.

“Any refugee flow in these numbers is a source of destabilization for these countries. You can see what happened in 1948 and 1967 after the Arab-Israeli wars. This displacement takes on a life of its own.”

The crush of refugees crossing the border into Syria is also dangerous because it allows members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to enter the country and use it as a haven while providing logistical help to the insurgency inside Iraq, he said.

The new arrivals already strain precious water resources in Jordan and Syria and compete with local residents for jobs, housing, classroom spots and medical care. Resentments swell against the Iraqis as their numbers increase.

There are fears the refugees, like some Palestinians before them, will be radicalized by their experience and easily recruited by terrorists looking to attack American, British and Israeli interests.

“We ought to assist these people immediately,” said Kristele Younes, an expert who has traveled the Middle East for Refugees International in Washington. “These refugees are in an extremely unstable area where every militia is represented. If we don’t help them, someone else will, and it will be too late. The countries in the region are going to implode. This crisis is regional; soon it will be global.”

Iraqi exiles already represent the largest number of asylum seekers in many wealthy industrialized countries, she said, and their numbers are bound to rise.

The asylum process also can provide cover for members of al-Qaida in Iraq who want to form terrorist cells in Western countries. This security concern is one reason why U.S. officials have been reluctant to let large numbers of Iraqis into the United States.

Younes said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security treats each Iraqi refugee as a potential terrorist, greatly slowing the resettlement process despite optimistic State Department projections that up to 25,000 Iraqis could be admitted this year.

Thus far, only 133 Iraqi refugees have been allowed to settle in America during the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
U.S. officials are interviewing another 8,000 applicants, with priority for those who helped the American war effort.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced measures designed to greatly expand the number of Iraqis given permission to move to America, but those proposals have not moved forward.

The refugee emergency has been concealed to some degree, because those fleeing are not living in the squalid camps associated with humanitarian disasters.

They have fanned out throughout the region, often living with relatives or renting small apartments filled with a dozen or more family members.

Deep wounds
Many show evidence of torture or deep mental scars.

“We are getting people who have been shot at, or had their houses bombed, or have had family members kidnapped or are in need of medical care,” said Trine Korvis, a resident supervisor at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees center set up about 10 miles north of Damascus.

U.N. workers report that a growing number of Iraqi women arriving in Syria have been raped. It also has become increasingly common for female refugees to turn to prostitution to raise money for food and rent.

Aid workers trying to establish some order on the chaotic refugee scene in Syria have converted an old warehouse outside the capital into a U.N. processing center. Each morning, as the sun rises above the desert, hundreds of hungry, frightened Iraqis gather outside the compound’s gates to register for medical care and food rations.

It is the silent face of war. The crest of refugees that was predicted before the Iraq invasion began in 2003 did not really develop until last year, after a sharp surge in sectarian fighting that followed the February 2006 bombing of the Askariya shrine, a revered Shia mosque in Samarra, Iraq.

That attack dimmed hopes for Sunni-Shia reconciliation and spawned a wave of vengeful attacks. A second attack on the remains of the mosque in June destroyed its two minarets, setting off fresh reprisals.

Fleeing to Syria
This type of killing is new in Iraq. Saddam was a Sunni Muslim who made sure that Sunnis held power despite their minority status. When challenged, he used brutal methods, including mass murder, to suppress Shias, Christians and Kurds, but there was little of the vicious, street-by-street fighting seen between the groups today.

The result has been a mass departure of those with the means to flee. So many Iraqis have crossed into Syria that the U.N. processing center at times seems like a small city, with its own taxi stand and vendors selling sweet mint tea and freshly baked bread.

” We are getting people from all levels of society, including people who were wealthy and those who had nothing but the clothes on their backs,”said Korvis, whose staff interviews Iraqis when they arrive.

Syria has been denounced by President Bush and other world leaders for sponsoring terrorism, meddling in Lebanon and crushing dissent, but U.N. officials generally praise President Bashar Assad’s government for helping the refugees.

“The Iraqi children have access to the Syrian public schools, and that’s an amazingly positive step,” said UNHCR spokesman Sybella Wilkes. U.N. officials also are grateful that the Syrian government has kept the border with Iraq open to refugees despite the huge number of people coming in.

Reminders of home
Syrian officials are careful to refer to the Iraqis as “visitors” and “guests” who deserve to be treated with traditional Middle Eastern hospitality. Still, the arrival of an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees has transformed some parts of Syria, a relatively small country of 19.3 million people.

In some crowded neighborhoods of the capital, Iraqis can squint a bit and imagine they are back in Baghdad during the days before the war — when Sunnis, Shias and Christians mingled easily.

Some roads have been informally renamed Baghdad Street and Iraqi Street. Many small groceries sell distinctive Iraqi flatbread and the sweet mango syrup and date syrup favored by Iraqis. The aroma from mountains of colored spices gives the market a familiar feel.

“This looks and feels like Iraq,” said an Iraqi shopkeeper who was proudly showing off the savory rice he stocks for his Iraqi customers. “Here, you don’t feel like a stranger. And, here, you cannot tell the difference between Sunni and Shia. Everybody gets along.”

‘No other choice’
In this jumble, refugee Muhummad Shakir lives in a small furniture shop with his wife and three children. They were robbed between Baghdad and the Iraqi border when they fled, losing most their savings — about $1,000 in cash — and all of his wife’s jewelry.

His sales income does not cover the rent on the shop, and he expects the family to run out of money in about six months unless relatives come to his aid.

“My family lives a miserable life, but we have no other choice,” he said without self-pity, insisting on providing sodas and sweets for a guest as tradition dictates. “Sometimes we can eat; sometimes we cannot. My children are just killing time, playing in the streets. I hope they forget about food, because we can’t give them lunch, only breakfast and dinner.”

He struggles to comprehend events. The most confounding question, he says, is why Sunnis and Shias started fighting each other after coexisting under Saddam.

“In Saddam’s time, no one ever asked if you were Sunni or Shia,” he said. “It’s very difficult to understand who provoked this violence. Is it neighboring states? Is it a political agenda? Is it revenge? We never had this in Saddam’s time.”

Most refugees say the U.S. has a responsibility to help them forge a new life.

Men like Hanna, who worked for a company that provided water to American military bases, believe the United States has a moral obligation to provide sanctuary.

Hanna was thrilled when U.S. and British forces marched in to topple Saddam in 2003. He believed the Americans would establish a free, democratic nation once the dictator was gone.

After the invasion, he drove a water tanker truck for two contracting companies hired by the U.S. military.

In the brief honeymoon period that followed the fall of Baghdad, the work was relatively safe, and Hanna earned good wages. He remains proud of his photo ID card, which establishes his tie to the U.S. Army and asks that “all courtesies” be extended to him.

“It wasn’t dangerous then for us to work with the U.S. troops,” he said in his dingy apartment, decorated with paintings of Jesus. “I did it for six months without any problems, but then we got a death threat letter from armed militias calling us traitors for working with the invaders. There were no names on the letters — we don’t know who sent them.”

It was about that time, late in 2003, the U.S. military experience in Iraq curdled. Armed resistance grew, and militias began to target Iraqis working with the Americans.

Hanna says all of the 20 Iraqi water-truck drivers received written death threats. U.S. military officers implored the drivers to stay on the job but cautioned them that the military could not provide security off the base.

Hanna could have left his job and probably escaped unharmed. But he cast his lot with the Americans.

“The general said he needed us badly, and at that time there were no other jobs in Iraq, and only the U.S. Army was paying money to Iraqis,” Hanna said. “So we sacrificed our lives to make money.”

He was motivated not only by financial concerns but by his strong belief — still intact — that the Americans had come to forge a better life for the Iraqis. That is why he named his son after Bremer.

“I am still very confident, and I believe the Americans are trying to do their best to serve Iraq and help,” he said. “When Iraq gets back to normal, when there is no ethnic conflict, the U.S. could leave.”

The family’s situation inside Syria is difficult but not desperate. Hanna’s two teenage sons, Frank and Robert, work in a bakery and a supermarket in Damascus. Their incomes help pay for the family’s apartment.

Their 11-year-old daughter, Valentina, attends public school, and Hanna receives some financial help from his siblings in Australia, who also send money to his brother’s widow and six children in Iraq.

Hanna’s goal is to leave Syria, where jobs are hard to find, but his efforts to get an Australian visa have been rebuffed. Now he is concentrating his hopes on coming to the United States.

“I did help the Americans,” he said. “I did my best, and my brother sacrificed his life to help the Americans, and my son was kidnapped helping the Americans.

“I am here in Syria because of the Americans, and the Americans must help me and let us come as refugees.”