US Imperialism


WSF In India






Gujarat Pogrom






Join Mailing List

Contact Us


Displaced And Despised

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," he said.

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 a day.

"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 bridges.

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."