Iraq: The Chaos Deepens
The destruction caused by the second US invasion of Falluja in November was met with quiet outrage by Iraqis. Most residents left before the invasion began, and rather than attempt to help the guerrillas inside the city (as happened during the April fighting, when the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, sent aid, arms and soldiers), other Iraqis have helped by absorbing the refugees as best they can. The refugees are spread out across the central part of the country, some staying with relatives, others in bomb shelters, camps, mosques or whatever can be found.
The camp in the courtyard of the mosque at Baghdad University is home to about 900 refugees. Some of the families here stay inside the mosque, but the rest are camped out in tents that provide little shelter from the winter wind that blows across the university. At night, temperatures dip to freezing.
As an Apache helicopter gunship buzzes low overhead, Umm Omar looks on with resignation. Continued fighting in Falluja has left the camp's residents with the feeling that they might be there for some time. Just before the New Year, Umm Omar set up a school for about 160 of the camp's children. Now she is asking the Education Ministry to permit her to administer mid-year exams at the camp. "If they are not able to take their exams, some of these children will lose an entire year of school. Some of them are in their last year of high school, and they want to finish this year," she said.
Riad Hassoun, a father of four who lives with his family in the camp, went back to Falluja in early January. After waiting for hours at the city's outskirts to receive an identification card from the US military (a process that includes a retinal scan and fingerprinting), he and his family stayed overnight but returned to the Baghdad camp the following morning.
"The houses around mine had all been destroyed," Hassoun said. "Our house was full of smoke--it was a mess. We cleaned up the house and spent the night there, but the bombing started at 7 in the evening and lasted until the morning. There were all sorts of bombs. My children couldn't sleep. There is no water; there is no electricity. I saw no reconstruction, just one truck trying to fix the electricity."
Hassoun was lucky--his house was still standing.
"My house was destroyed," said Umm Hussein, whose husband returned to Falluja in January to find their belongings unsalvageable. She cradles her sick son in her arms. "Every house in our neighborhood was destroyed. We have nothing left. How can I take my baby to the hospital?"
Sheik Hussein Abo Ahmed, who acts as a de facto head of the camp, led a demonstration in front of the Green Zone to demand greater rights for the refugees. Among their demands were unfettered return, compensation for destroyed homes and dead family members, and the right of journalists to be let into the city to film the damage.
"I saw one of the boys in the camp yesterday playing with a toy gun, and I asked him, 'Why don't you play with a soccer ball,' and he said, 'It is because I want to kill American soldiers for killing my uncle and my father,'" Hussein said.
"I have five women from Falluja and their children staying in an unfinished house I own," said the taxi driver who took us to the camp. "They cannot go back. The fighting is still going on. I don't understand why the Iraqi government would give the US Army permission to attack Falluja but do nothing for the people who lived there."
Harath al-Khodary, an openly radical member of a prominent business family, consults with members of the Muslim Scholars Association, the group that has taken the lead in the Sunni boycott of the elections. He is in charge of helping channel aid to the camp from other Arab countries. The camp has refused donations from a group of Americans who have sent aid to other Falluja refugees. I cannot help but find Khodary's hard-line stance, and the number of disenfranchised people who are susceptible to it, chilling--rather than "breaking the back" of the insurgency, it seems as though the US military has only fostered a more durable fighting force.
"The Iraqis are now divided into those who know what is going on and those convincing themselves that the Americans are liberators who are going to build Iraq and achieve freedom and democracy," Khodary said. "The Americans are mighty; they are well armored. Why can't they defeat a group of militia--'terrorists' with bad ideas?" he asks, his voice dripping with sarcasm.