Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sectarian Violence Displaces Families

Shias and Sunnis are leaving neighbourhoods where their community are in the minority.
By Yasin al-Rubaii
Nizar Abbas and his family of five have a new home - in the corner of a basketball court, where they huddle together on small mattresses every night next to dozens of other families.

A few kilometres away, Hamad Khalaf al-Dlaimi has been sleeping in cramped conditions since he moved into his brother-in-law's house last month. There are now 19 people crammed into two rooms in the house in western Baghdad.

Abbas, 40, and Dlaimi, 55, both taxi drivers, have been displaced from their own homes by the fear of sectarian violence.

Both men left their homes after the bombing of the al-Askariyah shrine in Samarra on February 22, which set off a chain of sectarian killings that many fear could mark the start of an Iraqi civil war. The violence has prompted Sunnis and Shias living in areas where their community was in the minority to move to neighbourhoods where they form the majority.

Abbas, a Shia who owns a house in the majority Sunni town of Abu Ghraib, brought his family to the Shia neighbourhood of Shuala where they sought shelter in the sports complex. Dlaimi, a Sunni who lived in Shuala, moved to the majority Sunni neighbourhood of al-Ghazaliyah.

Both men fear for their families’ lives, for their children's futures and for their country.

"I don't know when I'll go home, or what is going on,"said Abbas. "All I hear are rumours about Shia houses being robbed and burnt in Sunni areas, and Sunnis being killed in Shia areas, [solely] on the basis of their ID papers."

Abbas is staying with about 30 other families from Abu Ghraib at the Shuala sports club. It is frequently protected not by police, but by Mahdi Army militia fighters loyal to the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The families said they fled because of poor security in Abu Ghraib. In addition to fears of random violence, Abbas was personally threatened by militiamen, and he worried that his children might be kidnapped on their way to school.

Because they are now displaced, his children spend their days playing sports with local children and the athletes who train at the club. The women are able to prepare food at the club, but complain that their families do not have any privacy when they sleep - there are no partitions on the basketball court, and not enough beds.

The club's staff are trying to help. Ali Naji, the 38-year-old deputy head of the club, said he can provide shelter and protection for displaced families for now, but he has asked the government to provide some services. It has not responded to the request.

"We are sure that if this displacement problem continues, it will lead to a human catastrophe," Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the National Accord Front, a Sunni Arab party, warned earlier this month.

Baghdad residents recall how Sunnis and Shias have lived together for decades, often in tightly intertwined communities.

Abbas and his family are confident that there will be no split between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad. He notes that both Sunnis and Shias in Shuala have given them water, clothes and blankets.

His 16-year-old son, Ahmed Nizar, remembers that their Sunni neighbours sobbed when the family left their house in Abu Ghraib. "They promised to protect our house until we get back," he said.

No one is watching over Dlaimi's house, which just adds to his many worries. He has been living off his savings as he has not driven his taxi since the family fled. He is embarrassed to be imposing on his brother-in-law.

The bombings scared Dlaimi, as did the deteriorating security situation in al-Shuala. Dlaimi is a typically Sunni Arab surname name. His Shia neighbour – who advised him to change it – helped him by telling the black-clad militants who came to attack his house that he was a Shia from the south. Dlaimi left his home of 30 years shortly thereafter.

"This sectarian feud is something new for us. We lived together in harmony for decades, tied by brotherhood, marriage and tribal affiliation. We are sad that this shameful sectarianism has came in from outside our borders," said Dlaimi, in a veiled reference to alleged Iranian interference in Iraq.

According to sports club official Naji, the friction is worse in new rather than well-established mixed communities.

“Sectarian tensions have risen in the newer neighbourhoods where Shias and Sunnis live together," he said.

Shuala and Sadr City were primarily created by impoverished Shia communities who moved to Baghdad when former president Saddam Hussein dried up the marshes of southern Iraq in 1991. Over the past three years, sectarian tension between these displaced Shias and long-time Sunni Arab residents has grown. There have been intimidation, arson attacks and killings on both sides.

But Dlaimi's wife, Isra Abed al-Qadir, recalled how her family lived peaceably with their neighbours for over three decades without hearing the words “Sunni” or “Shia” even mentioned. Then a local restaurant owner, a Sunni, was killed close to their house, as was a young man who worked as a calligrapher.

"I miss my small house," she said, rubbing her prayer beads. "We’d never [previously] seen a neighbour beaten, threatened, moving out or killing his neighbour. It's the end of the world."

Yasin al-Rubai'i and Daud Salman are IWPR trainees in Baghdad.

More IWPR's Global Voices