Back to Baghdad

Iraqi exile returns home to find capital slowly emerging from nightmare of sectarian conflict.

Back to Baghdad

Iraqi exile returns home to find capital slowly emerging from nightmare of sectarian conflict.

Friday, 4 January, 2008
From the moment I left Baghdad, I yearned for my homeland. I was filled with hope that I would one day return to the city of my childhood and all of my memories.

Last week, encouraged by my family’s reports that the situation was improving, I returned to the Iraqi capital.

My story began when I received a letter threatening me to “either quit or die”. I thought initially that the threat was related to my work with a foreign organisation, but I later discovered that it was because of the sectarian conflict. “We do not want you in our neighbourhood” the second threat stated.

I moved to a fairly safe neighbourhood until I decided to flee to Cairo in June 2005. Like all of the Iraqi exiles in the city, I was amazed to see people living normal lives. They stayed out late at night without fear of explosions. They did not worry about curfews. They lounged in parks and relaxed in restaurants, enjoying every moment of their lives.

As Iraqis, we also gathered and discussed the latest news from our country and the deteriorating security situation. I made sure to get the news from my friends and relatives in Baghdad instead of only relying on the wire agencies and satellite channels.

Our discussions sometimes became hostile because of our differing views. We brought our problems and disagreements to Egypt, despite our common bond of having fled Iraq for fear of being killed by militias.

My family never felt comfortable in Cairo and returned to Iraq in April 2006. I stayed, which made my pain worse because I was lonely and constantly worrying about my loved ones in Iraq. Many other Iraqis were separated from their families as well and faced financial difficulties. They could not make ends meet.

Some of the wealthy Iraqis brought huge amounts of money with them. They used their funds to purchase flats and opened businesses such as restaurants and bakeries in Cairo. But they were the very few; most Iraqis could not find work in the city. They lived off of the money they had brought with them as long as they could, and when that money dried up, they decided to return whatever the cost. They had no other choice.

I hoped to return to Baghdad several months ago, but I first wanted my Egyptian residency renewed for another year before going back. The residency provides another option in case things get worse in Baghdad.

Over the past several weeks, my family kept telling me that things were ok; that the security situation was getting better and that hundreds of Iraqi families were returning from Syria every day. I finally decided to leave. I sold my furniture and all of my belongings in Cairo and was lucky enough to catch a plane to Baghdad last week - flights have been booked out for several weeks.

Aboard the plane, I heard good news from the cabin crew, who said that life was improving in Baghdad day after day. We had heard that on the news but didn’t believe it. We suspected that it was merely defence ministry propaganda.

My old friends offered to give me a lift without asking me first where I wanted to go. This was a good sign: it meant that that they could go wherever they wanted in Baghdad.

While on my way back to my house, I noticed the cars crossing the bridges on the airport road that lead to the Ammariya and Jihad neighbourhoods. These were once some of the most turbulent areas of the capital.

My colleagues told me that there are more job opportunities now in the government and in the private sector. The reduction in violence has encouraged foreign companies to invest in the country, especially in the relatively stable northern part of Iraq. Even in Baghdad, people are staying out late at night. Last year, the city resembled a ghost town. No one dared to leave home after 4 pm.

The one disappointing thing that I noticed and heard about was the poor public services, including electricity, water, fuel and health care. I spent my first night getting our home generator to work because the power was completely cut.

Things generally seem better in Baghdad, but there are many painful stories and memories here. I was shocked to discover that many of my neighbours had either been killed or displaced, and I wondered how we ever came to this. We lived together peacefully for decades, thinking nothing of our different backgrounds.

I still remember a lively little boy called Tariq whose body was discovered in a dump. I still remember old man Naji whom we dubbed the mayor of our neighbourhood because he attended all the local events, everything from weddings to funerals. He was pushed out and was not allowed to take a single item of furniture or valuables. I heard many sad stories that broke my heart and made me cry.

But there are happy stories too: stories of displaced families who have returned since the downturn in the violence.

Since returning, I have not seen all the city, but it seems relatively secure and the situation appears promising. Things are not perfect: for now, tribal forces are controlling the Sunni Arab areas, for example, which is not a long-term solution for maintaining security.

But there is hope. We hope that Baghdad will once again become the city that we knew; the 24-hour city, where people can live their lives and never have to worry about being blackmailed, kidnapped or murdered.

The author prefers not to be named for security reasons.

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