KALUER, Iraq—The people who last lived in the village of Kaluer, on the grassy plain of northern Iraq, moved away and carted off everything, even the doors and windowpanes of their earthen houses, leaving a ghost town.
But in this ethnically riven swath of the country between the cities of Kirkuk and Irbil, ghost towns are seldom populated only by ghosts. And Kaluer, abandoned in March by its roughly 250 Arab families, is already repopulating. The new residents are some of the original Kurdish people the former Arab residents evicted in 1986.
Aram Mohammad, 20, was one of the first to return, arriving just days after nearby Kirkuk fell to Kurdish and American forces.
He was only 4 when Kaluer's 400 Kurdish families were told to leave, their homes razed by newcomers they describe as members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party who were given subsidies to build the mud and cinder-block houses that make up modern-day Kaluer. The move was part of Saddam's brutal policy of moving Arabs into Kurdish areas.
"We were here for generations, and then it was Arabized," said Mohammad, a carpenter, standing in the three-room cinder-block house he's been sharing with 12 family members and a chicken. "Now we are having it back."
His family had moved to Kirkuk, then eventually migrated to Irbil, the main city in what since 1991 has been Iraq's autonomous Kurdish-run enclave.
Like other younger members of the families who have migrated back to Kaluer in the past three weeks—many of them not even born when their families fled—he was raised on a steady diet of lost-cause nostalgia.
"They were eager to come here," said Luqman Kaka Muhammad, 36, who was a young student when he left the village. He returned in mid-April with a wife and three children. "I always told them this is our real land."
So far, several dozen families of former residents have made it back to the village, arriving from various corners of Iraq's Kurdish areas. More are on the way: Names painted on the walls of still-empty houses stake the claims of families yet to return.
In urban centers such as Kirkuk and Mosul, where Kurds and other minorities were pushed out by Saddam's government, legal experts proffer complicated administrative methods for adjudicating property claims. But in Kaluer, a rougher rural justice is the rule. The bottom line: Finders keepers.
"He who comes first takes the best house," said Hasib Hasan Aziz, 56, who spent his years since 1986 driving a taxi in Kirkuk. He said he hoped to return to farming wheat and barley, if either the Kurdish local government or the Americans can get the irrigation system working again.
From a cousin who did construction work during the village's Arab years, Aziz learned the name of the man who had built a new house atop his former home: Haji Rahim Hadidi, an Arab from Kirkuk.
Like many of the post-1986 residents, Hadidi returned to that city on the eve of war, Aziz said. What if Hadidi came back to claim the house he built? "I would not give it to him," Aziz said. "It's on my land."
The people who occupied the village after 1986 are thieves, Muhammad said. "If we come across these people, we will kill them."
(Schaffer reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-ghosttown