Desperate Squatters A 'Huge Problem'

A building project in northern Baghdad, funded by the government, is part of a plan to address the country's postwar housing crisis. After the invasion, landlords across Iraq seized the opportunity to increase rents and force out people who could not pay.
A building project in northern Baghdad, funded by the government, is part of a plan to address the country's postwar housing crisis. After the invasion, landlords across Iraq seized the opportunity to increase rents and force out people who could not pay. (By Bassam Sebti For The Washington Post)

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By Bassam Sebti
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Every morning, Sajida Abboud slips out of the simple room she shares with her husband and two children and, eyes downcast, tries to leave unnoticed for her job as an elementary school teacher. She does not want her pupils to catch sight of her leaving the trash-strewn former government building where she has lived illegally as a squatter since the U.S.-led invasion 2 1/2 years ago.

Abboud, 35, moved to the building in the Baladiyat neighborhood in eastern Baghdad after her landlady forced her from her home of 14 years because she could not pay the rent, she said. When Saddam Hussein was in power, landlords could not evict tenants who were unable to pay. But when the Americans came to Iraq, Abboud said, her landlady persuaded U.S. troops to kick her family out of their dwelling, telling the soldiers that "we were terrorists, Baathists."

Abboud is among the Iraqis -- their numbers are estimated in the thousands -- illegally occupying empty buildings because they have no other place to go. Such people represent a looming challenge for Iraq's fledgling government as it grapples with a host of other problems, including shortages of electricity, potable water and fuel.

Mohammed Hareeri, spokesman for the Housing and Reconstruction Ministry, said the number of homeless in Iraq was a "huge, huge problem."

Hareeri said Iraq was short 3.38 million housing units, which will cost $120 billion to construct. "There are no such funds," he said. "We are a country under debt."

After the invasion, landlords across Iraq seized the opportunity to increase rents and force out people who could not pay. Within weeks, thousands of suddenly homeless families had started looking for abandoned buildings. Many of them occupied buildings that had belonged to the government, including museums, military barracks and offices such the one where Abboud and her family now live.

About 15 men, women and children who live in that complex gathered around a visitor recently in a yard with open sewers and trash cans swarming with flies, shouting in protest over their living conditions. The residents blame the government for not providing enough housing.

"Do you see our room?" Abboud said of the unfurnished space she shares with her husband and children. "You cannot put three hens in there, not three people."

Nearby, a teenage girl stood in a small brick room that Abboud said serves as both kitchen and bathroom. "We have endured living in this terrible place," Abboud said.

Abboud and her family live with 27 other families. In interviews, many said they had no alternative but to continue squatting in these buildings.

"I had no other choice," said Abboud, who wore a loose orange and red smock, draped with a black abaya , the traditional Iraqi dress for religious women. "We were about to sleep in the street."

Earlier this year, U.S. troops backed by Iraqi police came to force the squatters out, Abboud said. They told her that the building, which once served as an Iraqi military commissary, was to be turned into a police station.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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