'I Can't Live Here Anymore'

By K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 19, 2008

BAGHDAD -- The sectarian violence that raged in Baghdad during the past three years has left the city polarized, with mixed neighborhoods undergoing what amounts to sectarian cleansing. The few Sunni families in Shiite neighborhoods were forced to move to areas where Sunnis predominate, while Shiites in largely Sunni neighborhoods took the opposite path.

Sectarianism has taken hold, despite the government's efforts to undo the process by allowing the displaced families to return to their homes. A psychological barrier has been established that looks set to remain in force, maybe for several generations, no matter what the authorities do.

I live in Amiriyah, in western Baghdad, close to the airport. It is a suburb of wide, paved streets and well-built houses surrounded by citrus trees and the tall palms that are seen in almost every Iraqi home with a garden. Dates, of which there are more than 200 kinds, are a favorite food here.

The neighborhood is home to a cross section of middle-class Iraqis, most of whom worked for the government. The plots of land were given away by the former regime at nominal prices, along with a nice interest-free loan from the Iraqi Real Estate Bank. Many people added a few thousand dinars more and had a modern house built for their families.

Most of this happened during the 1970s and '80s, under the Baathist regime. When Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979, he distributed the remaining plots of land to members of the Iraqi intelligence and the top army commanders. The villas built by those guardians of his regime are still standing, easily distinguishable from the middle-class houses by their mansion-like appearance and luxurious facades.

My next-door neighbors happened to be a Shiite family. The man was widely known in the neighborhood as Abu Zahraa, literally Father of Zahraa. Zahraa is the name of his eldest daughter. It is a long-established tradition in Iraq and a few other Muslim countries for a man to be known by the name of his eldest son or, if he has no son, by his daughter's.

Abu Zahraa was teacher at a high school, his wife a teacher at an elementary school. Both retired in the late 1990s, and were leading a normal, quiet life after their three daughters married their Shiite suitors. Their being Shiite was never of concern to anyone in the neighborhood.

After the fall of Hussein's regime in 2003, the couple continued to live undisturbed -- until 2006, when sectarian violence reached levels not seen before. First, a young Shiite man, married just a few months, was gunned down by masked assailants a few doors down the street from where I and my Shiite neighbors lived. A few days later, a man and his son who had lived in the neighborhood for 30 years were kidnapped and later found shot to death. They were Shiite. A third attack on the same street left another Shiite man crippled for life.

With the rise in violence, Abu Zahraa and his wife fled, leaving behind all the furniture and appliances, and found refuge at their daughter's place in Kadhimiyah, a mostly Shiite neighborhood in northern Baghdad. But they kept in touch with me and my wife by phone. They asked us to keep an eye on their belongings and to water their little garden and their pots of roses and lilies.

Being a little more daring, I took my wife and paid them a visit at their daughter's house. They received us with smiles and tears. They kept asking about their pots of roses and if the plants were still alive. They also asked if we could help them by bringing some of their belongings -- the TV set, the carpet cleaner, some dishes and pots. A few days later, I put the things in my car and delivered them.

Then last year, rumors circulated that unoccupied houses would be taken over by Sunni families who had been forcibly displaced from their homes in mostly Shiite areas by Shiite gangs. Abu Zahraa and his wife offered to sell their house in Amiriyah, but no one would buy it.

So they struck a deal with a Sunni family that had been forced out of the southwestern Amil neighborhood. The Sunni family would pay a nominal rent but would move out when Abu Zahraa asked to have his house back. With the security situation improving, especially since the beginning of this year, hopes were high that Abu Zahraa could soon return to his home and his lilies and garden.

This month, he told the Sunni family that he and his wife would be returning soon, and asked them to leave. They willingly obliged, moving out the next day and handing the key to my wife.

Last Sunday, I was thrilled to see Abu Zahraa at his home, believing he and his wife had come back to stay. Almost in tears, he hugged me. He said he had brought two trucks and four porters. The porters were loading the furniture into the trucks while he packed small items into his old Lada.

With the tenants gone, he said, he could easily sell the house and buy another one, even if it is smaller or older, in a safe area, preferably a mostly Shiite one. He looked at me and said: "That feeling of peace and security is gone. We, as Shiites, can never feel safe in a mostly Sunni neighborhood again. I can't live here anymore. The risk to my life and to my wife's is too high."

He hugged me again and said, choking up, "But we shall always remain friends."

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