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A Hotbed of Hope


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:30 pm

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Then there are the refugee returnees—Iraqis who fled the country while Saddam was in power who have now voluntarily reentered Iraq post-invasion. Figures are inconclusive at best, with some governorates not counting returning Iraqis for months at a stretch and others not counting them at all. However, of the number of Iraqis repatriating northern Iraq since the invasion in 2003, Raman says, “there are no figures, but it is well in excess of 300,000. And that was as of March 2006.” Maps on the wall in her office show arrows representing movements of people into and out of certain areas of Iraq. When closely questioned as to the numbers represented by these arrows, Raman says that figures based on aid distribution as
per the public distribution system maintained by the Ministry of Trade show an influx of 330,000 people returning to southern and central Iraq beginning in 2003 and continuing in a steady stream through 2004. The majority came from Iran and represent both Kurds and Shiites who had run from the brutalities of the former regime. Kurds returned to the north and Shiites to the center and south. Across the country, the number of returnees could easily be close to one million.

On Raman’s map there are also three small triangles located in a vast expanse of open desert. These represent three different refugee encampments. Currently, 1,200 Palestinians live in one of these encampments. Iraq’s Palestinian refugee population, once estimated at 34,000, has dropped to approximately 15,000. Real numbers are hard to come by because many of those who once lived in Baghdad and were protected by Saddam have been subjected to extraordinarily brutal violence by hostile militias. Some were able to leave Iraq in the early days of the invasion, but after Syria and Jordan closed their borders, those who did not make it out are now trapped. “It is a forsaken location,” says Raman who visited there recently. “It is blisteringly hot. They have no access to schools. They have tented shelters. Snakes and scorpions are common. We are working with the Red Cross to improve the sites, but [this
encampment] does not function and that is universally recognized.”

Since January 2005, 197 Iranian Kurds have lived at a second, similar encampment. The third encampment holds 137 Sudanese from Darfur who once lived in Baghdad and worked as skilled laborers. Also targeted by militias, they now live in “extraordinarily harsh conditions in a very violent location that is difficult for us to access,” says Raman. “I find that the refugees tend to become a bit of a byline in the Iraq war.”

Among those who know me, it is well known that I fall in love too easily. Even before my plane lands at the Sulaimaniyeh airport, I am overcome by the beauty of the Kurdish mountains, covered in long golden grasses, their green dried away months ago by the arid heat. Dotted with hardy, stunted evergreens and oaks, their massive transparent peaks steamily rise through the relentlessly harsh glare of the summer sun and become one with the sky. Any trepidation I may have felt at reentering a violent country quickly dissipates as my feet hit the tarmac.

It suddenly all comes back to me as to why I am here—having wondered at the airport in Amman if I was truly crazy for returning to this place of war.

But the war is not apparent in Sulaimaniyeh. Th ere are limited checkpoints, men with scarves wrapped turbanlike around their heads and wearing flowing zoot-suit-type pants cinched at their ankles, smooth, clean black-asphalt roads, and signs of enormous growth everywhere—new construction of more smooth, clean black-asphalt roads, hotels, condominiums and other housing, the almost-completed University of Sulaimaniyeh, even a newly opened gelato parlor. How could it be that I was at all tentative about coming to this place that has once again captivated my aff ection so immediately, so intensely?

I have gained entry to this part of Iraq with the help of two friends, Nathan Musselman and Anna Bachman. Anna and I met in Baghdad in the weeks before the war in 2003. We had both entered Iraq under the umbrella of the now-defunct Voices in the Wilderness (VITW), an Iraq-awareness-raising, antisanction organization founded by long-term peace activist Kathy Kelly. At the time, VITW was the only known group bringing delegations of people into Iraq. Meeting up months later during the segment of a larger speaking tour Anna had arranged in her community in Washington State, she and I made plans to return to Iraq. In February 2004, while at Kennedy Airport waiting for Royal Jordanian officials to remove the body of a
man who had died on the flight over from Amman from our delayed plane, Anna spotted her friend Nathan Musselman, who just happened to be on our flight.

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