Creating Homeless in Iraq

New families seem to arrive every hour at the Iraqi Red Crescent refugee camp in West Baghdad. The camp, the first tent city erected as a result of the U.S. assault on Fallujah first drew about 50 families, a small fraction of the tens of thousands of civilians forced to flee their homes.

These were the most desperate families, unable to find housing with family or friends. And now there are many more like them.

As a new round of violence erupted in Najaf Tuesday, Red Crescent officials began to fear the need for many more tent cities in Iraq. The Fallujah families were only the first among those.

"All these families, the Americans destroyed their houses," Kamer Jabi, director for youth and volunteers with the Iraqi Red Crescent told IPS. "They destroyed it all. No furniture, no nothing. So they need this help from us."

Jabi says the Red Crescent first tried to set up a camp closer to Fallujah, but the area came under repeated fire from U.S. helicopters.

"We established a camp 7km outside of Fallujah but it was destroyed by the Americans," she says. "They burnt two tents with a helicopter and even until now we have a lot of tents there but we cannot send our volunteers to bring them here because it’s very dangerous."

Among those now living in the Red Crescent camp is 12-year-old Khalid Anwar Khalidi. He has not been to school for almost a month. When his family initially fled Fallujah two weeks ago, they all crammed into a relative’s house in the poor West Baghdad neighborhood Washash.

"There were nine families in that house, so it was very crowded," he says. "One family on top of the other. So my parents and my sister and my aunt and her two children moved to this camp. The rest of my relatives still live in that house."

This is a story that repeats itself again and again across the camp. Poor Iraqi families who welcomed their relatives from Fallujah at first were unable to support them through what appears to be a long American siege.

"We are refugees in our own country," says one man from inside his tent. "It’s so sad. We’re just like the Palestinians."

He says his family of 12 stayed with relatives in Baghdad for two weeks before coming to the Red Crescent camp. He considered renting a house or apartment in Baghdad but now that he is a refugee he does not have job. He will need his savings, he says, to fix the glass panes and doors at his house in Fallujah that were destroyed in the U.S. Army assault.

"I’m ashamed to be a refugee," he says. "I had to cross the street when my brother came to visit the camp. He said it was a shame on our whole family."

It may be a long time before these refugees begin to lead normal lives again, says Jabi. "Of course they will eventually be able to go back to their houses. They have to give them some peace. All the Iraqi people are really tired of the war. For 35 years we were under Saddam Hussein and now we are under the Americans. We are fed up. We are very tired."

But while the U.S. military has postponed an all-out assault on Fallujah, it is not giving up on the city. Officials say U.S. troops plan joint patrols with Iraqi security forces inside Fallujah this week in an attempt to restore control over the insurgent stronghold without a major attack.

The decision comes as Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy helping appoint a new Iraqi government urged the Bush administration to "tread carefully" in besieged Fallujah and avoid further alienating an already angry populace.

Before leaving Iraq Sunday he described the siege as unacceptable collective punishment.

"When you surround a city, you bomb the city, when people cannot go to hospital, what name do you have for that?" he said. "And you, if you have enemies there, this is exactly what they want you to do, to alienate more people so that more people support them rather than you."