The daily trials of displaced Iraqi Sunnis
BAGHDAD - Leaflets warn: “Go home or face the consequences.” The message is targeted at the 1 million Iraqis who have fled to the capital Baghdad after Islamic State (ISIS) militants seized large parts of the north and west of the country in the last year. Baghdad residents are reluctant to mix with people they see as aliens and fear some of them may be linked to ISIS. Landlords lease apartments for triple the price offered to locals.
The population of Baghdad has swelled in recent weeks by 15% to 8.4 million, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Immigration and Displaced, mainly with people from Anbar province after Ramadi, the provincial capital, fell last month to coordinated attacks by more than a dozen ISIS suicide car bombers followed by an assault by the extreme jihadist group’s ground forces.
“This is not the Baghdad I know,” sighed Shatha Mohammed, 59, a mother of six. She said she fled with her 18-member family, including her daughters-in-law and grandchildren, hours before ISIS stormed Ramadi on May 17th as the Iraqi military garrison collapsed and fled.
“You feel like a criminal or a thief here. We don’t dare to leave the house. My 10-year-old grandchild buys our food from a nearby grocery store. Our neighbours give us dirty looks whenever we open our door,” she told The Arab Weekly, breaking into tears.
Predominantly Sunni Ramadi is a key city on Baghdad’s western edge. Its fall to ISIS sent shockwaves across the capital, where the government, dominated by the rival Shia Muslim sect, warned that ISIS could advance towards Baghdad.
Iraqi President Fuad Masum told The Arab Weekly in an interview days after Ramadi fell that Baghdad was “certainly in danger” from the ISIS jihadist militants.
Masum, a Kurd, said the mainly Shia Iraqi army and its allied militias planned to defend the capital on the banks of the Tigris river while mounting a counteroffensive to drive ISIS out of Ramadi, the provincial capital of the vast desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Ramadi’s fall to ISIS was a setback to the Iraqi army and a blow to US-backed efforts to drive the militants out of the large parts of western and northern Iraq, in Tikrit and Mosul, which the extremist group overran in a surprise offensive in June 2014.
While the Iraqi army recaptured Tikrit on April 1st, following a month-long battle for the hometown of fallen Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — remains under ISIS rule.
Making things worse, media reports circulated about the alleged abduction by Shia militias of dozens Sunni Iraqis displaced from Ramadi and other cities in Anbar, who were later found dead.
Adding to their isolation by Baghdad’s residents, Iraqi lawmaker Hakem al-Zameli, said in televised comments that 1,000 families among those displaced from Ramadi were pro-ISIS, trained by the militant group to destabilise Baghdad.
“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said a 29-year-old man displaced from Ramadi, who asked to be identified as Mohammed. “When people know that I am from Ramadi, having heard what the MP said, they just turn their backs to me,” Mohammed told The Arab Weekly.
“But there are the others who threaten to hurt me physically, so I decided to stay home and not venture out for any reason.”
Another 30-year-old Anbar native in Baghdad, who identified himself as Ammar, said security forces harass him after they see his hometown and name on his national identity card.
“When they see where I come from, police, army or militias make me wait for hours under the sun and heat before crossing a checkpoint,” he said. “I beg and plea with them to let go of me but they push and shove me, calling me names.
“It is humiliating.”
In the purely Shia-populated Bayaa neighbourhood and the nearby Aamel district on the capital’s south-western and western edge, leaflets threaten Sunnis from Anbar, Mosul and other provinces to keep away.
“Go home, we don’t want terrorists here,” read a banner hung on a building in the Bayaa neighbourhood. Another in the Aamel district warned, “Sunnis are not welcome here.”
A 47-year-old Sunni Iraqi policeman, who fled Anbar to Baghdad in May, said he had received death threats.
“Days after I rented an apartment in central Baghdad, I was left a note on my front door warning me to leave or face the consequences,” said the man, identified only as Abu Zohra. “I had hoped they’d forget about me but they didn’t. Three days later, my front door was blown up in a blast, men in military uniform stormed into the house, threw me, my wife and nine children in the street.” “They beat me and my three sons and refused to allow us take any of our belongings,” he told The Arab Weekly.
Rents for the displaced are usually at least double that asked of Baghdad residents, said Ahmed Nusseir, 33. He said a two-bedroom apartment in a middle-class Baghdad neighbourhood, which is usually offered at $200 to Baghdad residents, is rented for $600 to the displaced.
“You don’t blame the landlords,” he said. “They don’t want to rent out to the displaced for fear that their property may be blown up, or destroyed by the militias.”