By Rory McCarthy
13 June , 2003
For 13 years, Rasmia Hijazi
lived with her husband and son in a spacious, two-bedroom apartment
in the Jamila district of Baghdad.
Now this spirited, well-educated
woman stands in the street, gazing up at her former home, and argues,
once again, with the Iraqi landlord who evicted her just weeks after
the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Mrs Hijazi's "crime",
like that of thousands of others in Baghdad, is to be Palestinian. For
years, Saddam nurtured Palestinian support by sending cheques to the
families of suicide bombers and providing refugees in Iraq with good
homes, either at peppercorn rents or for nothing.
They had easier access to
jobs, Iraqis say, and were regarded as the privileged few. Political
dissidents from Syria received similar treatment, including free housing
in a set of modern apartment blocks in central Baghdad.
Now, after the fall of the
regime, Iraqi landlords are seizing their property back, often with
the help of armed gangs. The Palestinians and Syrians have become despised.
"It is not Saddam who
brought us here. Our people have been in this country since 1948,"
Mrs Hijazi, 55, shouted at her landlord. "I can't find any other
apartments to rent. What am I supposed to do now?"
For now, Mrs Hijazi, who
left her home in the Palestinian city of Haifa in 1969, lives in a refugee
camp on the outskirts of the city with around 1,000 other Palestinians.
The camp is clean and orderly, with electricity and fresh water.
But the family, like all
those around them, are confined to a small, canvas tent. A wooden sideboard,
stacked heavily with a pile of their belongings, is the only piece of
their furniture which fits into their new home. Inside is a single bottle
of olive oil, a token of the comfortable life they have given up. The
midday heat is overbearing.
Her landlord, Salah Nahi
Tabous, a wiry, 70-year-old man, dressed in the Arab dishdasha and wearing
thick, brown sunglasses, is unmoved. "It is not my responsibility,"
he shouted back at her. "There is no government now. It is your
problem. You paid so little rent for so many years. Now I need the flat
for my son."
He pulled a cigarette from
a packet. "The rent you paid me was enough to buy only one cigarette,"
It is only a slight exaggeration.
When she took the flat in 1991, she paid 300 dinars per month - worth
at least £100 at that time. After the first Gulf war, however,
the dinar collapsed.
Saddam ordered landlords
to freeze rents at pre-war levels, and forbade evictions. Landlords
with Palestinians tenants, in particular, were ordered to accept low
rents. By the mid-90s, Mrs Hijazi's monthly rental payments were the
equivalent of only a few pence.
After the Baghdad regime
was toppled, Mrs Hijazi said that her landlord and his three sons appeared
at her door, brandishing guns, and ordered her family to leave within
"It is more than a tragedy,"
she said. "I used to live in a big apartment with all the utilities
you can imagine. Now I am in a tent."
Like many Palestinians in
Iraq, she has largely worthless identity papers and no passport, meaning
that she cannot leave the country.
There are around 70,000 Palestinians
living in Iraq, according to Qusay al-Madi, who is in charge of Mrs
Hijazi's camp in Dalabiat, west of Baghdad. Most were born of families
who arrived in 1948. "We think it will be impossible to get our
people's homes back now," he said.
Baghdad's smaller Syrian
community, made up largely of well-educated academics and intellectuals,
is under similar pressure. Many were afraid of lynch mobs after the
regime fell, and fled home to Syria.
Iraqis from nearby slums
poured into the well-appointed flats in Baghdad's Haifa Street, which
Syrians had been given for free by Saddam.
Amjad Ibrahim, 22, a Syrian
engineering student who was born in Britain, sat outside his apartment
preparing for the funeral of his neighbour, Hassan Hekmet. Mr Hekmet,
45, was shot dead by looters just after dark on Friday when they stole
his battered Volkswagen car as he drove across one of Baghdad's main
The story is an increasingly
common one in this often lawless capital, but Syrians feel they are
a particular target because they were protected by a now-despised dictator.
"We are not safe in
Baghdad," Mr Ibrahim said. "We have all got our own guns,
and we stay at home every night, waiting for the looters to come. Every
night there is shooting here. When the guns fire, the American tanks
come, but there is nothing they can do."
Messages sent back from the
Syrians who have returned home suggest that many were arrested once
they crossed the border. All were political dissidents who fled to Baghdad
30 years ago after a decisive split in the Syrian Ba'ath Party.
"We have been supported
by the former regime here, and so now the Iraqis are against us,"
said Mr Ibrahim. "But nobody wants to try and go to Syria if they
are going to arrest us all."
There is little indication
that the US civil administration, which is struggling to curb looting,
restore power, and restart the government, has the willingness to listen
to the complaints of the newly homeless and stateless.
"This tent is my home,
and I am obliged to stay here," Mrs Hijazi said. "I do not
see where the solution is going to come from."