Iraq’s tidal wave of misery

October 24, 2008

The U.S. mainstream media present a picture of Iraq today that would mystify most Iraqis. The past year, according to them, has been a success story, with some measure of stability and prosperity finally returning to the country.

But that picture couldn't be more misleading, as Michael Schwartz shows in his book War Without End: The Iraq War in Context. Schwartz describes how U.S. interests were rooted in the geopolitics of oil and the expansion of a neoliberal economic model--and he sets out the horrible consequences for Iraqis with heartbreaking descriptions of the reality of everyday life.

Schwartz is a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and a frequent writer on Iraq for such Web sites as TomDispatch, Huffington Post and others. In this excerpt, reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books, he documents the scale of the human tragedy in Iraq following the U.S. invasion.

This fall, Schwartz will join other authors on the Resisting Empire speaking tour.

Not so much a migration as a forced exodus. Scientists, engineers, doctors, architects, writers, poets, you name it--everybody is getting out of town.
--Iraqi blogger AnaRki13

BY 2008 a giant wave of misery was engulfing Iraq, but it was only indirectly related to the horrific events that were regularly featured in U.S. media coverage. Though it was connected to the car bombings and death squads that made the evening news, this tsunami of misery was social and economic in nature. It dislodged people from their jobs, it swept them out of their homes, it tore them from their material possessions, and carried them off from families and communities. It left them stranded in hostile towns or foreign countries with no anchor to help them resist the next wave of displacement.

The victims of this human tsunami were called refugees if they washed ashore outside the country, or IDPs (internally displaced persons) if their landing place was within Iraq's borders. Either way, they were typically left with no permanent housing, no reliable livelihood, no community support, and no government aid. All the normal social props that support human lives were gone.



IN ITS first four years the Iraq war created three overlapping waves of refugees and IDPs.

It all began with the CPA, which the Bush administration set up inside Baghdad's Green Zone and in May 2003 placed under the control of L. Paul Bremer III. When the CPA began disassembling Iraq's state apparatus, thousands of Baathist Party bureaucrats were purged from the government, tens of thousands of workers were laid off from shuttered state-owned industries, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi military personnel were dismissed from Hussein's dismantled military. Their numbers soon multiplied as the ripple effect of their lost purchasing power rolled through the economy. Many of the newly unemployed found other (less remunerative) jobs, some hunkered down to wait out bad times, and still others left their homes and sought work elsewhere, with the most marketable going to nearby countries where their skills were still in demand. They were the first wave of Iraqi refugees.

As the post-invasion chaos continued, kidnapping became the country's growth industry, targeting any prosperous family with the means to pay ransom. This accelerated the rate of departure, particularly among those whose careers had already been disrupted. A flood of professional, technical, and managerial workers fled Iraq in search of personal and job security.

The spirit of this initial exodus was eloquently expressed by an Iraqi blogger with the online name AnaRki13:

It's just not worth it staying here. Sunni, Shiite, or Christian--everybody, we're all leaving, or have already left.

One of my friends keeps berating me about how I should love this country, the land of my ancestors, where I was born and raised; how I should be grateful and return to the place that gave me everything. I always tell him the same thing: "Iraq, as you and me once knew it, is lost. What's left of it, I don't want..."

The most famous doctors and university professors have already left the country because many of them, including ones I knew personally, were assassinated or killed, and the rest got the message--and got themselves jobs in the west, where they were received warmly and given high positions. Other millions of Iraqis, just ordinary Iraqis, left and are leaving--without plans and with much hope.

In 2004 the occupation triggered a second wave of refugees when it began to attack and invade insurgent strongholds, such as the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah, using the full kinetic force of its military. Large numbers of local residents were forced to flee battleground neighborhoods or cities. The process was summarized in a thorough review of the history of the war compiled by the Global Policy Forum and thirty-five other international nongovernmental organizations:

Among those who flee, the most fortunate are able to seek refuge with out-of-town relatives, but many flee into the countryside where they face extremely difficult conditions, including shortages of food and water. Eventually the Red Crescent, the UN, or relief organizations set up camps. In Fallujah, a city of about 300,000, over 216,000 displaced persons had to seek shelter in overcrowded camps during the winter months, inadequately supplied with food, water, and medical care. An estimated 100,000 fled al-Qaim, a city of 150,000, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS). In Ramadi, about 70 percent of the city's 400,000 people left in advance of the U.S. onslaught.

These moments mark the beginning of Iraq's massive displacement crisis.

Although most of these refugees returned after the fighting, a significant minority did not, either because their homes or livelihoods had been destroyed, or because they were afraid of the continuing violence. Like the economically displaced of the previous wave, these refugees sought out new areas that were less dangerous or more prosperous, including neighboring countries. And, as with that first wave, it was the professional, technical, and managerial workers who were most likely to have the resources to leave Iraq.

In early 2005 the third wave began, increasing steadily through 2006 into a veritable tsunami of ethnic cleansing and civil war that pushed vast numbers of Iraqis from their homes. The precipitating incidents, according to Ali Allawi--the Iraqi finance minister at the time--were initially triggered by the second-wave refugees pushed out of the Sunni city of Fallujah in winter 2004:

Refugees leaving Fallujah had converged on the western Sunni suburbs of Baghdad, Amriya, and Ghazaliya, which had come under the control of the insurgency. Insurgents, often backed by relatives of the Fallujah refugees, turned on the Shia residents of these neighbourhoods. Hundreds of Shia families were driven from their homes, which were then seized by the refugees. Sunni Arab resentment against the Shia's "collaboration" with the occupation's forces had been building up, exacerbated by the apparent indifference of the Shia to the assault on Fallujah.

In turn, the Shia were becoming incensed by the daily attacks on policemen and soldiers, who were mostly poor Shia men. The targeting of Sunnis in majority Shia neighborhoods began in early 2005. In the Shaab district of Baghdad, for instance, the assassination of a popular Sadrist cleric, Sheikh Haitham al-Ansari, led to the formation of one of the first Shia death squads....The cycle of killings, assassinations, bombings and expulsions fed into each other, quickly turning to a full-scale ethnic cleansing of city neighborhoods and towns.

The process accelerated in early 2006 after the bombing in Samarra of the Golden Dome, a revered Shiite shrine. It crested in 2007 when the U.S. military "surge" in Baghdad loosened the hold of Sunni insurgents on many mixed as well as mostly Sunni neighborhoods in the capital. At the end of the surge, all but twenty-five or so of the approximately two hundred mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad had become ethnically homogenous. A similar process took place in the capital's southern suburbs.

As minority groups in mixed neighborhoods and cities were driven out, they joined the army of displaced persons, often settling into vacated homes in newly purified neighborhoods dominated by their own sect. But many, like those in the previous waves of refugees, found they had to move far away from the violence, including, once again, a large number who simply left Iraq. As with previous waves, the more prosperous were the most likely to depart, taking with them professional, technical, and managerial skills.

Among those who departed in this third wave was Riverbend, the anonymous "Girl Blogger from Baghdad," who had achieved international fame for her beautifully crafted descriptions of life in Iraq under the U.S. occupation. Her account of her journey into exile chronicled the emotional tragedy experienced by millions of Iraqis:

The last few hours in the house were a blur. It was time to go and I went from room to room saying goodbye to everything. I said goodbye to my desk--the one I'd used all through high school and college. I said goodbye to the curtains and the bed and the couch. I said goodbye to the armchair E. and I broke when we were younger. I said goodbye to the big table over which we'd gathered for meals and to do homework. I said goodbye to the ghosts of the framed pictures that once hung on the walls, because the pictures have long since been taken down and stored away--but I knew just what hung where. I said goodbye to the silly board games we inevitably fought over--the Arabic Monopoly with the missing cards and money that no one had the heart to throw away....

The trip was long and uneventful, other than two checkpoints being run by masked men. They asked to see identification, took a cursory glance at the passports and asked where we were going. The same was done for the car behind us. Those checkpoints are terrifying but I've learned that the best technique is to avoid eye contact, answer questions politely and pray under your breath. My mother and I had been careful not to wear any apparent jewelry, just in case, and we were both in long skirts and head scarves....

How is it that a border no one can see or touch stands between car bombs, militias, death squads and...peace, safety? It's difficult to believe--even now. I sit here and write this and wonder why I can't hear the explosions....


THE NUMBER of Iraqis who flooded neighboring lands or became internal refugees remains notoriously difficult to determine. Even the most circumspect of observers, however, have reported huge rates of displacement since the Bush administration's March 2003 invasion. These numbers quickly outstripped the flood of expatriates who had fled the country during Saddam Hussein's brutal era.

By early 2006 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was estimating that 1.7 million Iraqis had left the country and that perhaps an equal number of internal refugees had been created in the same three-year period. The rate rose dramatically yet again as sectarian violence and ethnic expulsions took hold. The International Organization for Migration estimated the displacement rate during 2006 and 2007 at about sixty thousand per month. In mid-2007 Iraq was declared by Refugees International to be the "fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world," while the UN called the crisis "the worst human displacement in Iraq's modern history." Veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn concluded that the "Iraqi refugee crisis is now surpassing in numbers anything ever seen in the Middle East, including the expulsion or flight of Palestinians in 1948."

Syria, the only country that initially placed no restrictions on Iraqi immigration, had (according to UN statistics) taken in about 1.25 million displaced Iraqis by early 2007. In addition, the UN estimated that more than five hundred thousand Iraqi refugees were in Jordan, seventy thousand in Egypt, sixty thousand in Iran, thirty thousand in Lebanon, two hundred thousand spread across the Gulf States, and one hundred thousand in Europe, with fifty thousand in other countries around the globe. The United States, which had accepted about thirty thousand Iraqi refugees during Saddam Hussein's years, admitted only 463 between the start of the war and mid-2007. Its chief invasion partner, Great Britain, admitted no more than 150 per year.

President Bush's "surge" strategy--which added thirty thousand U.S. combat troops to the already intense fighting in Baghdad in the first six months of 2007, further amplified the human flood, especially of the internally displaced. According to James Glanz and Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, "American-led operations have brought new fighting, driving fearful Iraqis from their homes at much higher rates than before the tens of thousands of additional troops arrived." The combined effect of the surge and accelerated ethnic expulsions generated an estimated displacement rate of one hundred thousand per month in Baghdad alone during the first half of 2007, a figure that surprised even Said Hakki, the director of the Iraqi Red Crescent, who had been monitoring the refugee crisis since the beginning of the war.

During 2007, according to UN estimates, Syria admitted an additional one hundred fifty thousand refugees. With Iraqis by then constituting almost 10 percent of the country's population, the Syrian government, feeling the strain on resources, began putting limits on the influx and attempted to launch a mass repatriation policy. These repatriation efforts--in Syria and elsewhere--were, however, largely fruitless. Even when violence in Baghdad declined in late 2007, refugees attempting to return found that their abandoned homes had been irreversibly damaged in U.S. offensives, had been appropriated by strangers (often of a different sect), or were located in newly "cleansed" neighborhoods that were now inhospitable to them. These barriers, however, did not stop Syria and Jordan from closing borders and attempting to expel large numbers of already settled Iraqi refugees.

In the same years the weight of displaced persons inside Iraq grew ever more quickly. Estimated by the UN at 2.25 million in September 2007, this tidal flow of internally displaced, often homeless families began to weigh on the resources of the provinces receiving them. Najaf, the first large city south of Baghdad, where the most sacred Shiite shrines in Iraq are located, found that its population of seven hundred thousand had increased by an estimated four hundred thousand displaced Shia. By mid-2007 three other southern Shia provinces struggled to integrate IDPs who by that point constituted half the population.

The burden was crushing. By 2007 Karbala, one of the provinces most affected, was attempting to enforce a draconian measure passed the previous year: new residents would be expelled unless officially sponsored by two members of the provincial council. Other governates also tried in various ways, largely without success, to stanch the flow of refugees.

Whether inside or outside the country, even families who had been prosperous before the war faced grim conditions. In Syria, where a careful survey of conditions was undertaken in October 2007, only 24 percent of all Iraqi families were supported by salaries or wages. Most families were left to live as best they could on dwindling savings or remittances from relatives, and a third of those with funds on hand expected to run out within three months.

The experience of Mohammed Saleem, who had run a successful supermarket in Baghdad during the austere years before the U.S. invasion, was typical. "The big suffering," he told Inter Press Service reporter Maki al-Nazzai, "started with the 2003 occupation that brought closed roads and reduced income for people." With his business faltering, sectarian violence provided the impetus for departure. Local militias told him to "leave within 24 hours," and he quickly gathered his family and left for Syria. Safe but unable to find work or start a business, Saleem's brother in Baghdad was "selling our property piece by piece so that we can survive."

Under this kind of pressure, increasing numbers of people were reduced to sex work or other exploitative or illegal sources of income. According to independent journalist Deborah Campbell, Damascus nightclubs were "filled with tens of thousands of Iraqi girls and widows who supported their family by selling themselves."

Food was a major issue for many refugee families. According to the UN, nearly half needed "urgent food assistance." A substantial proportion of adults reported skipping at least one meal a day in order to feed their children. Many others endured foodless days "in order to keep up with rent and utilities." One refugee mother told McClatchy reporter Hannah Allam, "We buy just enough meat to flavor the food--we buy it with pennies." Another, the wife of a formerly prosperous construction engineer, told independent reporter Carolyn Bancroft, "In Iraq, we are not safe but we can eat. Our family helps us. In Egypt, we are safe but we can't eat."

According to a rigorous McClatchy survey, most Iraqi refugees in Syria were housed in crowded conditions with more than one person per room (sometimes many more). Twenty-five percent of families lived in one-room apartments; about one in six refugees had been diagnosed with a (usually untreated) chronic disease; and one-fifth of the children had had diarrhea in the two weeks before their parents were interviewed. Although Syrian officials had aided refugee parents in getting more than two-thirds of school-age children enrolled in schools, 46 percent had dropped out--mainly due to lack of appropriate immigration documents, insufficient funds to pay for school expenses, or a variety of emotional issues. The dropout rate was escalating. According to independent reporter Deborah Campbell, education became the exception rather than the rule:

One of the things that really struck me about the refugee crisis is the way--Iraq had once been, before the war, the most educated country in the Middle East, and all of these [refugee] children that I met...were in school before the war. And now, 70 to 90 percent of those in Syria are not in school, although the Syrian government is allowing them. Syrian schools now have sixty, seventy children per classroom. If you don't have documents, and if you're fleeing with twenty-four-hours' notice, you're not going and getting your children's report cards before you leave. Or they've missed three, four years already, and they don't go to school. And many of them are starting to work now to support their families, whether shining shoes or selling things on the street.

As the numbers of refugees increased these problems amplified. Overcrowding in the receiving cities meant increased rents; in Syria rents had doubled and tripled during the huge influx between 2005 and 2007. Food prices there also tripled as more families competed for limited supplies. Competition for jobs, even sex work, led to lower wages. Fewer and fewer children attended school.

Like the expatriate refugees, internally displaced Iraqis faced severe and constantly eroding conditions. The almost powerless Iraqi central government, largely trapped inside Baghdad's Green Zone--and under continuing pressure from the IMF to reduce the cost of its welfare system--instituted a policy that required people who moved from one place to another to register in person in Baghdad in order to maintain eligibility for the national food subsidy program. Such registration was impossible for most families driven from their homes in the country's vicious civil war. With no way to register, families displaced outside of Baghdad entered their new residences without even the shrinking safety net offered by guaranteed subsidies of basic food supplies.

To make matters worse, almost three-quarters of the displaced were women or children, and very few intact families had working fathers. Unemployment rates in most cities were already at or above 50 percent, so prostitution and child labor increasingly became viable options, when available. UNICEF reported that a large proportion of children in such families were hungry, clinically underweight, and stunted in their growth. "In some areas, up to 90 percent of the [displaced] children are not in school," the UN agency reported.

Ruba, a thirty-eight-year-old internally displaced widow, told an unfortunately representative story to the Red Cross:

My children and I left my home in Anbar governorate almost two years ago. My husband had been killed right in front of us. I had to protect my children, so we fled the same night with nothing but some money. For me, today, there is no past and no future, only a horrible present. I only wish I had some photos of my husband and my family. I can see it all in my mind but I don't know how long I will remember. There was a time when we always sat down together for lunch and laughed. Today we are living with my cousin's family. There are 12 of us in one room. I don't want my old life again because I know it is impossible without my husband. All I want is for my children to go to school and lead a normal life.

Ali, a thirteen-year-old, told the Red Cross an even more heart-wrenching tale:

Two years ago, my three-year-old sister and I left our home in Basra and went to stay at our aunt's house. My parents said that everything was okay and that they would join us in a week. We took some clothes and my sister took her doll. We waited for weeks but my parents never came. My aunt told me that I am the man of the family now and that I should take care of my sister. She doesn't know our parents are dead and always asks when we will go back home. But when I am older I will take her home and I will take care of her.

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