Displaced in Iraq

Marketplace Staff May 30, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: At least 89 people have been killed in Iraq over the past two days. That’s civilians. Not US military. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said today he wants to end factional fighting in that country. The violence and fear that’s splitting the population — Sunnis into one neighborhood, Shiites into another. The Iraqi government says nearly 15,000 families, about 100,000 people, have been forced out of their homes since the US invasion. More now from Borzou Daragahi in Karbala.

BORZOU DARAGHI: If you wanted to track Iraq’s changing times, the Hotel Karbala would be a good barometer. During its halcyon days years ago it housed tourists visiting the shrines of this southern Iraqi city. They used to wander the gardens, dine in the small cafeteria or linger by the sapphire pool.

Its decline started in the 1970s when it became a garrison for Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. After the 2003 American-led invasion, it hosted contingents of foreign troops. Without windows or doors, it’s now a concrete shell amid a weed-strewn lot.

And in a sign of the country’s current troubles, the dilapidated building now houses 73 displaced Shiite Muslim families fleeing sectarian violence and fear in other parts of the country.

ALI JAFFAR HUSSEIN [voice of interpreter]: I used to have a shop. Most of the heads of families were government officials.

Ali Jaffar Hussein is a Shiite. He used to be a clothing merchant earning a respectable $6,000 a year. Now, he wanders the streets of this city looking for work, getting by on food rations and charity. He and his family left the religiously mixed city of Tall Afar, about 300 miles north of Baghdad, to escape violence by Sunni insurgents.

HUSSEIN: We had our houses, our cars, our shops. Terrorists burnt our houses, stole our properties and they are using our houses. They stole our homes.

Schoolteacher Yusef Wathaq used to earn $200 a month as an educator. Now he and his family of five live in one of the rooms at the Hotel Karbala. He has no job and no home except for this crowded building.

YUSEF WATHAQ: Terrorists burned my house and kidnapped my brothers.

Relief workers have sounded the alarm about uprooted families as they struggle to gauge a long-brewing crisis that appears to have accelerated in recent weeks. A Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra has unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence and tension between Shiites and Sunnis.

Iraq’s wars have often displaced its people. Once the fighting is over they go back home. But the new crisis puts pressure on already overburdened local governments. Karbala province, for instance, has been flooded with about 1,200 families, including 570 that arrived this year and stayed. The province must provide newcomers with housing, healthcare, as well as go through the time-consuming bureaucratic hassle of transferring their food-ration cards. There are other challenges.

[Sound: School]

DARAGHI: Are these kids going to school here?

ANSWER: They said yes, they are going to school here in Karbala.

Most of the children from Tall Afar at the ramshackle Hotel Karbala speak Turkoman rather than Arabic, and need tutoring to catch up with their peers, says Karbala Governor Akeel Qazaly.

AKEEL QAZALY [voice of interpreter]: Of course this costs us a lot of money. We are in need of a team to follow up their social situation. And we had a shortage of financial resources and public services in the first place.

The Ministry of Displacement and Migration has proposed setting up command-and-control centers to track and aid the burgeoning domestic refugee population. But aid workers say they can barely keep up with the new camps and refugee outposts. They’re rising faster than they can track.

In Karbala, I’m Borzou Daragahi for Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: Borzou Daragahi is the Baghdad bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

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