‘March of Freedom’ a Trail of Tears

When President George W. Bush proclaimed in his January 2005 inaugural address that "America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof … we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom," his supporters were cheered, however momentarily, by the notion that our foray into Iraq would not be in vain.

Today, the march of freedom that Bush so boldly declared that winter has translated into a march of diasporas – millions from their homes in Iraq, now at least 1.7 million so far in Pakistan. It is a road paved with horrors that a majority of Americans read about with dread but can never fully appreciate, living in a country that hasn’t absorbed so much of its own blood since the Civil War 144 years ago.

Just a taste, from the account of one Pakistani refugee fleeing the fighting in Swat Valley earlier this month:

“‘When the shelling started, my wife and I ran out to gather the children. It was like a hell outside, and we just started running,’ recounted Taj Mahmad, 35, a vegetable-cart puller. ‘I realized that my son and my smallest daughter were missing. She is only 3. But my wife cried and said the rest of us would be killed if we stayed, so we kept going. I have no idea what happened to them.'”

Presidential candidate Barack Obama said in July that it is "the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to victory over the Taliban," and his words couldn’t have been more foreboding. Lulled into the prevailing conviction that more intervention is necessary for peace, the administration today conveniently underplays the fact that, despite a surge success "beyond our wildest dreams," some four million Iraqis who Bush once promised freedom from fear are still afraid to come home.

Home is where an increasingly authoritarian prime minister with American blessings is widely considered unable and unwilling to assist his own people in a safe return.

"They say, Iraq isn’t our country to go back to," said Dahr Jamail, journalist and author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, talking to Antiwar.com about recent conversations with Iraqi refugees. Some cannot go back because they will be killed, and some fear there is nothing – no home, no support system, no jobs, and no food – to go back to.

Refugees International released a field report [.pdf] only last month that recognized the problem quite dramatically:

"Since November 2007, the Government of Iraq (GOI) has been actively encouraging the return of displaced Iraqis. However, in its strategy to encourage returns, the Government of Iraq has failed to take political, social and economic reality into consideration and examine the country’s capacity to absorb large numbers of returns. Instead, it has made the return of displaced Iraqis a component, as opposed to a consequence, of its security strategy. Large returns, the government reasoned, would create the impression that security in Iraq was better and would win popular and international support for its military and political actions. Yet for returns to be sustainable, they must occur when suitable conditions are met. The politicization of returns will only lead to further displacement and humanitarian needs."

According to the report, gleaned from interviews conducted by Refugees International President Ken Bacon, Senior Advocate Kristèle Younès, and consultant Nir Rosen, returns "remain a trickle rather than the solution of choice for most displaced." Citing International Organization for Migration (IOM) numbers, they say that only 50,000 families – or 250,000 individuals of the nearly 5 million displaced – have returned. Of that number, only 8 percent are refugees returning from neighboring countries. It is estimated that there are still at least 1.5 million Iraqis living in a second-class limbo in Syria and Jordan today.

"According to UNHCR [the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees] and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, many who have returned to Iraq from neighboring countries have now become internally displaced, unable to go back to their homes. They seek shelter in neighborhoods reflecting their religious sect, and avoid neighborhoods where they are the minority and might feel threatened.

"Many internally displaced people fear returning because returnees have been killed. Local security officials and staff of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) confirmed that there have been incidents of intimidation or murder in many areas, and these stories spread quickly throughout the population."

The report suggests Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is doing all he can to paper over these realities, while avoiding the real groundwork for welcoming Iraqis back en masse. In fact, Maliki and Obama both benefit from de-emphasizing the humanitarian disaster in Iraq. For Obama, perpetuating the successful surge narrative and subsequent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq allows him to pursue similar counterinsurgency-driven operations in Afghanistan without the usual pushback from Congress or from the American people.

But the Potemkin village does not hold up to scrutiny, said Jamail. In Iraq, "there are no basic services," and an appalling lack of clean water, food, electricity, sanitation, and health care await returning Iraqis. Consider this: a population of 29 million people under siege for six years, enduring multiple insurgencies, terrorism, foreign occupation, sectarianism, aerial bombardments, and lawlessness. Upward of 1 million killed in the violence, according to a recent Associated Press tabulation, and a countless number left wounded and crippled physically and mentally for life. For this, there are half the number of health care providers there were before the hostilities: 18,000 compared to 36,000 in 2000, according to Refugees International.

Add that to declining government revenues due to dropping oil prices (which is already affecting security), high unemployment, corruption in all levels of government, a resurgence of al-Qaeda and sectarian violence, and the prospect of the U.S. military withdrawing and taking their only Band-Aid with them. The fate of Iraq – even American forces (off the record) are saying – is truly uncertain. Iraqi security forces, one senior U.S. military officer told the Washington Post recently, "are not ready for us to give over the cities."

Who Will Heal the People?

If even a fraction of the refugees returned at once, it is likely that the fragile health care system would buckle. Meanwhile, doctors – the ones specializing in the wounds of war, like prosthetics and plastic surgery – are the hardest to come by. In fact, Iraqis have to leave just to get care.

Six-year-old Hussein, after several operations on his head and face, was brought to Jordan for specialized care. Caught in a car bomb explosion in a busy market when he was just 11 months old, Hussein was left with scarred skin that stretched so tightly over his skull that he looks "like an old man." For a long time it prevented him from even closing his eyes, until doctors in Jordan were able to see him, according to a May BBC News report.

"Injuries from explosions and car bombs often cause long-lasting damage and demand subsequent treatment. But it’s not available in Iraq," said writer Natalia Antelava, noting UN figures placing the exodus of Iraq’s specialists during the war at 400 since 2003, while "hundreds more" have been killed. "Hospitals lack staff, basic infrastructure, and security," she added.

So many refugees – Iraqi women and children are by far the most vulnerable – merely languish in Syria and Jordan. In Jordan, for example, they live as nobodies – they aren’t officially registered as refugees, because the government cannot afford to feed and clothe them. They cannot seek citizenship either, so they are left to labor undocumented, often abused and cheated. The children, who cannot go to school, work illegally or stay indoors, in fear. Like their counterparts in Syria, young Iraqi girls often work as prostitutes for rich Arab clientele.

Many are shamed and feel far from "free." They cannot go home.

Home, according to reports gleaned over the last several years of the war, is a place where the societal fabric itself has been ripped asunder, exposing wartime desperation among families and communities, devolving into what many would consider barbaric cultural responses, including honor killings and the inconceivable neglect of widows and orphans. Young women and children are sold like chattel to abusive employers, there’s a thriving and unchecked sex trade, and orphanages are rife with abuse (those that aren’t struggle to stay afloat).

Aseel Kami, writing for Reuters, recently interviewed the managers of Safe House, a home for 33 boys aged 6 to 16, who share 73 meters of space on two floors (only seven beds). They are orphans, tiny victims of terrifying nightmares: images of loved ones ripped apart by bombs, bullets, and fire.

"There, in Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City slum, they sleep, eat, study and play. The air inside is rank: a pool of raw sewage glistens outside the front door. …The orphanage owner wants the property back and staff have been given notice to clear out within three months: they do not know where they will go. ‘If we can’t find another house, we will camp in al-Firdous square,’ said Samir Jassim, assistant to the orphanage manager. ‘Hopefully an official passing by will see us and find a solution for us.'”

The children who follow their widowed mothers from hovel to blasted-out shelter in search of food and water fare no better. Cut off from families who consider them a disgrace, Iraqi widows have perhaps the most heartbreaking story to tell. But no one is listening, least of all the government, which appears undisturbed that many of these women wait upward of a year to receive a promised $40/month pension.

The government’s neglect of these women has gotten so bad that Minister of Women’s Affairs Nawal al-Samarie resigned in February because she said her office lacked the legitimacy and resources to handle an "army of widows" – an estimated 750,000 women in serious crisis.

“We have many problems related to Iraqi women," she told Reuters. "We have an army of widows, unemployed, oppressed, and detained women. I feel like I am sitting in a minister’s chair enjoying the privileges of a minister, but I cannot act as one."

‘Peace’ Train to Peshawar

Under U.S. pressure, the Pakistani army has pushed further into Pashtun lands of the Swat Valley in order to thwart the Taliban, and the result has been another refugee crisis – 1.7 million homeless and counting as of May 19. Bush’s freedom march long ago turned into a modern-day trail of tears for civilians caught in the crossfire of the American Global War on Terror. Today, they might as well be on a chain gang, given the amount of indignity and pain they must endure to survive.

Rightly fearing a backlash from the civilian population that could easily spill into its Afghanistan operations, the U.S. military announced Monday its own plans for aid to the refugees.

“We want to be there to help them,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. “We want to demonstrate that we are good partners.”

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.