The UN estimates that 2.7m Iraqis have been internally displaced, but although the violence is down, the refuges are still mired in poverty.
'Life has never been easy, but now it's bad'
AZIZIYAH, IRAQ // There are six people left in Amal Tazar's immediate family, all of them now living in a slum next to the main Baghdad motorway, an hour's drive south of the city. Her husband and eldest son were both killed, along with her brother-in-law, two years ago. Since then the responsibility for putting food on the table has fallen on the narrow shoulders of Hussein, who, at 15, is the eldest surviving male. He usually manages to make ends meet by working in the local market.
"Life has never been easy, but now it's bad; we are living without a future," Mrs Tazar said, standing in the courtyard of the mud-brick, dirt-floor building in the al Quds neighbourhood of Aziziyah, the place she now has to call home. "My children do not go to school and we have nowhere to go. We'd like to go back to our house, but it was destroyed. We don't have any choices." Mrs Tazar and her five remaining offspring are among what the United Nations estimates to be 2.7 million Iraqis displaced within their own country, in addition to another 2m refugees who fled the country. Although violence is down significantly, bombings and assassinations remain commonplace. The majority of internally displaced people (IDPs) have not yet returned.
Some refuse to go back to areas that are still dangerous; some have lost their homes entirely; others simply lack the money to move, having exhausted their savings waiting out the war. Mrs Tazar and her family fit all three categories. Their house, in a village near Salman Pak, an area 30km south-east of Baghdad once synonymous with appalling levels of violence, was apparently burnt down soon after Sunni militants ordered them to leave. It was as they walked away that her Shiite husband and her eldest son, who had been married for three months, were separated from the group and shot by the side of the road, victims of the sectarian civil war that gripped the country from 2005 to 2008.
The survivors headed further south, ending up in the Shiite-dominated regions around Aziziyah, in Wasit province 60km from Baghdad, where they found physical safety but little else. "We came with almost nothing, not much more than some blankets and clothes," Mrs Tazar said. She also carried photos of her family - the images of her dead relatives now hang on the wall. "We have no money now and even if we did, no one has told us it is safe to return."
The Iraqi authorities have promised to pay 1.5 million dinars (Dh4,800) in cash to any returnee families, after they get back home. But according to international agencies involved with the IDPs, the money is often lost or tied up for months in bureaucracy. And with Iraq becoming increasingly expensive, such a small sum would not be enough for Mrs Tazar to rebuild in Salman Pak, even if it were safe to do so.
The government's department for refugees has been making infrequent cash payouts of between US$80 and US$1,200 (Dh290 and Dh4,400) to those who were displaced but stayed in the country. Bassim Mohammad Mahmoud, head of the department's offices in Wasit, admitted it was not enough. "We work with international organisations, and we offer what support we can," he said in an interview at his office in Kut, the administrative capital of Wasit. "We know there are serious problems and we are trying to ease them. The support we offer is basic. We cannot meet all of their needs."
There are 11,000 displaced families registered in Wasit province, a total of 64,000 people, mainly families from Baghdad and Diyala, two areas hit hardest in the war. As security has improved in some areas, 1,642 families have returned home. A trickle of new arrivals still turn up in the province, however. "Some are going home, but we are seeing more people registering with us," Mr Mahmoud said. "Most are not new arrivals; they've been here and not registered. But there are still a handful of families coming down from dangerous areas."
In principle, all registered displaced people are allowed complete access to all government facilities, including schools and food rations. In practice many of the children do not go to lessons because they are unable to travel to class - there are no buses and most of the refugees do not have cars. In the same slum neighbourhood of al Quds, Jassim Hamid Rahman, another internal refugee, said he had been trying to return to Balad Ruz, in Diyala, after more than two years in exile.
"We applied to the government for the resettlement money," the 29-year-old said. "So far we've not heard anything more about it. I want to get back. I have two young daughters and don't want them to grow up living like this." They ate three meals a day, he said, and usually had enough water to wash in. But the children were often sick because of the open sewers and there was barely enough money for any doctor's bills.
"I can get $20 a day as a labourer when there's work, which isn't very often," Mr Rahman said. "That and some money from the government has kept us going. They gave us $500 once, but it costs about $300 a month to live here. The money doesn't last. "I want to go home, but can't afford to. As the situation is, I can't save enough for us to move. It's up to the government: if they help us we will go, if not, we will just sit here."