Iraqis Who Fled to Syria for Safety, Now Returning
BAGHDAD (AFP) -- When his six-year-old son was killed in a 2006 Baghdad gun battle, Seif Rashid decided to flee with his family to Syria, but the deadly unrest there forced him to return to Iraq last month.
"When I saw the lifeless body of my little Abdel Rahman I decided to leave with my wife and two girls. I could not stand my country, which was overwhelmed by hatred," Rashid said.
The boy had been killed by a stray bullet in Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighbourhood.
Rashid moved to Kafar Batna, on the outskirts of Damascus, because he had no work and the rent and life was cheaper.
But the wave of protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in March once again upset their lives.
"There were protests, they burned public buildings, posters of Bashar al-Assad -- and there have been arrests -- the situation was untenable," Rashid said. "So, we took our bags and left again."
Rashid, a 30-year-old shoe designer, mingled in Baghdad with a crowd of other returnees like him, all waiting to sign up at the National Registry office for refugees.
Registration entitles displaced Iraqis like him to a government installation allowance of four million dinars ($3,400/2,380 euros) per family, to help with the costs of resettling.
Many lost everything they had when they fled the violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and triggered an insurgency and Shiite-Sunni bloodletting.
Rashid, unemployed since he fled Iraq, has been living on his savings.
In Iraq, after the turmoil of the invasion and the extreme violence that began in 2004 and peaked in 2006 and 2007, neighbouring Syria quickly became the preferred escape for many Iraqis.
It was next door, not very expensive, and it had open borders. Between 300,000 and one million Iraqis are estimated to have fled to Syria during the violence.
-- Security is better than in Syria --
In 2004, 45-year-old Yaqub Khalaf Nussayef was shot in the abdomen and leg during a settling of scores between Sunni and Shiite groups.
Nussayef is a Sunni and former soldier who was living in the Shiite neighbourhood of Abu Ghraib, which gained worldwide notoriety after publication of photographs showing American soldiers humiliating and torturing prisoners.
A father of five, he first fled to Jordan and then to Damascus, where he collected and sold empty soft drink cans for recycling in order to feed his family.
"The Syrian capital was quiet, but elsewhere there was chaos. I have tasted the bitter taste of sectarian war and bloodshed, and I did not wish to be part of a new wave of violence," he said.
"I am convinced that what is going on over there is a sectarian war," said Nussayef, who arrived only days ago in Baghdad, searching for a home before he brings his family.
Syria is majority Sunni, but the Alawites, who comprise only 12 percent of the population, have been in power since 1963.
Hayat Saad, legal officer at the Baghdad refugees centre, said "every day we deal with between 60 to 70 cases of families who have returned to the country."
"Daily, about 20 come from Syria -- the largest contingent -- followed by Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Libya," she added.
Since the beginning of May, 1,171 families -- about 7,000 people -- have returned from Syria, and three-quarters have taken up residence in Baghdad province, the International Organisation for Migration told AFP.
"We still do not have any evidence of a large 'wave' of return in the past few months due to unrest," said the IOM's Nuray Inal.
In addition to assisting in housing, the ministry of refugees also helps in settling utility bills such as for water, electricity and telephones that may have accumulated over the years that owners were absent from their homes. It also helps in recovering homes that may have been taken over by squatters.
Qahtan Sabri, a 61-year-old carpenter, went to Damascus in 2005. "The situation was getting worse day-by-day. The confessional killings were increasing, and I had to stop working.
"I decided to return to Iraq when I realised that security is better in my own country than in Syria. I have resumed my business and will never leave my country," he said.
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