Iraqi Refugees Run From Violence to Deprivation

ARBIL – Khanzad, 26, originally Kurdish, returned to Arbil with her family in mid-2004 after 16 years of living in Baghdad. Like many coming from the violence-stricken city, she has a harrowing story to tell.

A number of armed robbers broke into their house on a sunny day in summer. Khanzad and her sisters locked themselves in a room and picked up their guns.

Their father, who was sleeping, woke up when he heard the screams of his daughters. He fired at the masked intruders, killing three. The others fled. Khanzad’s brother suffered head injuries from blows by the armed men.

Later the father had to pay ransom to the thieves’ tribe, in compensation for the dead.

Khanzad often thinks of Baghdad. "Although Baghdad is now unsafe, its image imprinted on my heart is still a nice one," she said. "If it was not for my parents, I would go from here to Baghdad barefoot."

Although much of the violence in present Iraq is sectarian, a good deal of violence comes from gangs and organized crime bands.

Under the impact of this violence from all sides, the wave of refugees has risen, particularly following the February 2006 attacks on the holy Shia mosques of Samarra, 125 km north of Baghdad.

Kurdistan, in the northern part of the country, is now home to more than 50,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from volatile regions of the country.

According to the Arbil branch of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), 439 families escaped to Arbil only during the first three weeks of this month.

"The influx of refugees is considerably on the rise, because of the deteriorating situation in their areas," Imad Maruf, head of the disaster and relief department of IRCS in Arbil told IPS.

"This figure relates only to those families who have been registered, and there are many others who are not registered yet."

Like Imad, other local authorities IPS spoke to expressed concern over the rising tide of refugees. They say the regional government has very limited resources to accommodate them.

Many worry that an all-out civil war may result in a human catastrophe, with tens of thousands dead and millions displaced.

The regional government in Kurdistan had unveiled a plan earlier this year to build camps for refugees. But several local officials told IPS that the plan was canceled for lack of cooperation from international agencies.

The influx of refugees has led to sharp increase in rents. This has created problems both for the refugees and the original residents. Many families complain they cannot afford the rents, since many are still jobless and are living on their savings.

Rent prices have doubled compared to 2004, and inflation is running high. All this while salaries have hardly increased.

Sarmad Shamun, 28, a Christian, is working hard with his father and elder brother to keep the family going. They left their electric goods shop in the ethnically mixed Dora neighborhood of Baghdad to resettle in Arbil last summer. They pay 600 dollars rent for a three-room house, very high by Iraqi standards.

"Almost all we earn goes for the rent," he said. "Things are very expensive here and there is not that much work. It’s a hard life."

In a further exacerbation of the problem, fleeing Christians have been increasingly targeted by extremist Islamic groups over the past three-and-a-half years. Christians taking refuge in Kurdistan are offered a monthly aid of about 100 dollars by a Christian organization.

"We have never interfered in politics and have never been members of any political party," said Jamila, 51. "We are not demanding that much, only a peaceful and decent life for ourselves and our children."

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