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.