Thursday, December 20, 2007

The little told story of Iraqi refugees

As a media junkie, I watch a lot of TV reporting to see what Big Media deems as newsworthy. One of the catastrophic consequences of the Iraq War is the precarious Iraqi refugee situation -- a story that's virtually absent from our tee-vee screens. Instead we hear about Huckabee's "subliminal cross" ad and other vacuous trivia that media spin into Serious News Reporting. The Watchers here have repeatedly written about the plight of Iraqi refugees, raised relevant questions, and reported on the disastrous humanitarian crisis of "George Bush’s vanity war."

What have you seen on the news networks? Nary a peep? Yeah, me neither.

I've previously commented at Political Animal about Iraqis returning from exile in allegedly large numbers. And it's untrue. Too many face perilous conditions to go home. Today's NYTimes reports on the destitution facing a "small fraction" of the millions of Iraqi refugees displaced by the war who have begun to return.

Tens of thousands of returning refugees face similar uncertainties throughout Iraq, where the government’s inability to manage the uneven reverse exodus has left the most vulnerable in an uneasy, potentially explosive limbo.
The government’s widely publicized plan to run free buses from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad was suspended after just two runs. Thousands of Sunni refugees get no aid because they fear registering with the Shiite-led government. While aid organizations are distributing emergency packets that include utensils, blankets and food, deeper structural issues, like securing neighborhoods, supplying housing and creating jobs, remain unresolved and largely unaddressed.
Imagine arriving home to find your house reduced to rubble. Or if you're lucky and the structure still stands, you discover squatters displaced by the war, ethnic cleansing, and the insurgency now occupy your former abode. What do you do when "the government committee that decides property disputes is charged with hearing only cases that predate the invasion of 2003" and you're hopelessly stranded in a spiral of constantly seeking safety and security?

[Keep reading...]

The backlog has overwhelmed the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration.
The brewing housing crisis extends to millions who abandoned their homes but stayed in Iraq. In Baghdad alone, more than 300,000 people left one neighborhood for another, as Sunnis fled to the west and Shiites to the east, often moving into recently evacuated houses.
Afraah Kadhom’s family is among the uprooted. She is 36, and usually shrouded in a billowing black abaya, a symbol of mourning. Her father and four brothers were killed two years ago when gunmen broke through the doors to the family’s house in Huriya, a neighborhood in north central Baghdad, and methodically hunted the men down. One of her brother’s sons, Mustafa, cradled his father’s head as the man lay dying. Mustafa, who is 9 now and shy, is the oldest surviving male member of the family. “The man of our house,” Ms. Kadhom said.
The family stayed in Huriya until last December, when armed Shiite militiamen swept through, routing more than 100 Sunni families, including Ms. Kadhom’s. Ms. Kadhom and her relatives fled to Ghazaliya, in western Baghdad, where an imam found them an apartment belonging to a Shiite family that had left for eastern Baghdad.
The government has aid programs that could help Ms. Kadhom, but she views them with deep suspicion. To apply for the food program, for example, she would have to return to Huriya to unregister the family with the local council, but she is desperately afraid of going there.
Iraq’s internally displaced are entitled to 150,000 dinars, or $123, a month from the government. But Ms. Kadhom also worries that the Shiite-dominated government would punish her if she applied. Her pride is also a factor. Ms. Kadhom’s father was a sheik. The family was used to giving alms, not asking for them.
If the apartment’s owners come back, Ms. Kadhom’s family will have nowhere to go. Three weeks after her family fled, its house was bombed and the rubble bulldozed away.
“The Shiites who moved into the homes near our property in Huriya, they will kill us if we go back,” she said.
Such stories are common among the homeless and displaced of Iraq's population.
Dr. Said Hakki, the director of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said, “The Iraqi government is aware of it and so is General Petraeus’s office." But the American military has refused "to get involved in property disputes, and the Iraqi government appears to be ignoring calls from its own ranks to step up the appeals process."

Hamdiya A. Najaf, a displacement and migration ministry official, painted a picture of desperation and frustration in pleading for help. Only Prime Minister al-Maliki can solve the mounting dilemma but he hasn't responded. Or won't.
Dhia’a al-Dien, 42, an engineer, leads the local council in the area of Haifa Street where Ms. Hashim and her family now live. Haifa Street used to be one of the most turbulent neighborhoods in Baghdad, and its middle class fled as kidnappings and mob-style street killings soared.
When squatters descended on some apartments, Mr. Dien said he felt helpless. “They were displaced from other neighborhoods. I felt pity for some of them. Others had weapons, the invaders. There was such chaos.”
Mr. Dien said he had been able to negotiate the return process for the handful of owners who have reclaimed their buildings. Some of the squatters left; others agreed to pay rent. But hundreds of the apartments’ owners have yet to return, and he fears getting stuck in the middle when they do.
“There’s no one helping us negotiate the return,” he said, shaking his head. “The Americans are telling us that we’ve got to negotiate between each other, because it’s not their business. But the Iraqi government said it’s not their business either.”
The unprecedented mayhem set into motion by the U.S. invasion continues to ravage Iraq at a scale five times more devastating than Hurricane Katrina. Maybe worse as anguish, poverty, the lack of basic shelter and safety breeds fear, resentment, potential new terrorists, and possibly future violence in Iraq.

While we witness reports about the seemingly quelled insurgency, notice also the little told story of the escalating humanitarian crisis of Iraq's refugees. It's quite chilling that a recent study showed that all Iraqi groups blame the U.S. invasion for their woes.
Few mentioned Saddam Hussein as a cause of their problems, which the report described as an important finding implying that "the current strife in Iraq seems to have totally eclipsed any agonies or grievances many Iraqis would have incurred from the past regime, which lasted for nearly four decades -- as opposed to the current conflict, which has lasted for five years."
Heckuva job, George.

And heckuva job, Big Media. Under-reporting the facts about the Iraqi refugee crisis won't make the situation disappear. Not for a long, long time.