Squatters in Iraqi buildings fear they'll soon be on the street

In this central Baghdad neighborhood, the poor, the homeless and displaced set up makeshift homes on public property. Now they worry that the government will force them off the land
In this central Baghdad neighborhood, the poor, the homeless and displaced set up makeshift homes on public property. Now they worry that the government will force them off the land Leila Fadel / MCT

BAGHDAD — Ghania Jassim moved out of her Baghdad apartment in 2003 when her husband had to choose between paying the soaring rent after the U.S. led-invasion or feeding their five children and her.

The family set up a makeshift home in the former Iraqi air force headquarters. There were no government services, sewage ran through the streets and the children's toys were scraps of metal, rubble and garbage. Times seemed grim, but now Jassim looks back on those days as carefree.

About four years ago, bandits stopped her husband and demanded his car, his most valuable possession. He refused, and he paid with his life.

Alone, Jassim supports her children by selling fuel that she buys on the black market. For just over a gallon, she makes a $1.50 profit.

Three months ago, Iraqi Security Forces ordered her to leave her makeshift home. She begged for money to pay rent and time to find another place to live, but they refused. Now she floats among the homes of friends and family. She and her five children sleep in a different place almost every night.

Jassim is among the tens of thousands of Iraqis who found shelter in government and public properties after the U.S.-led invasion but were ordered out of their temporary homes by the Iraqi government earlier this year. In some cases, it was to take back buildings for government use; in others, to build apartment complexes for government employees

After protests and complaints to parliament, in June the lawmakers voted to postpone the evictions. Nevertheless, people are still being forced out of their homes, from Kirkuk in the north to Baghdad to the southern city of Najaf, said Abdul Khaliq Mohammed Zangala, the head of the parliament's displaced and homeless committee.

Jassim's burdens continue to grow, and she's always close to a breakdown. Last week, as she returned from selling jerrycans of gasoline under the beating sun on Baghdad's streets, she lost control.

She can't always get gas to sell. When she can, she lugs around five jerrycans. Her children help: Her 9-year-old daughter knows how to use a plastic bottle as a funnel to fill a car's fuel tank, and her 4-year-old son goes to the driver's window to ask for payment.

"I can't take care of you anymore," she told her children, sobbing. "I can't do it anymore. Just go."

When the heat exhaustion passed, she returned to her senses.

"My life is wreckage," Jassim said, sitting on the floor of her sister's temporary home with three of her children. "God is generous; maybe things will be better when my children get older and my exhaustion to raise them is over."

Humanitarian workers fear that the evictions will add to the estimated 4.8 million displaced people inside and outside Iraq. Only three Iraqis in 100 who've fled their homes since 2003 have returned, according to the International Organization for Migration, which has 125 member countries.

In parliament, Zangala has battled to help his countrymen who are squatting in public buildings. "We have to have somewhere for these people to go," he said. "We haven't offered them money or accommodations."

But the government needs the property back, said Tahseen al Sheikhly, the civilian spokesman for Baghdad security operations. Parks where families once picnicked are pockmarked with the cinder-block and scrap-metal homes of the poor, and the homeless are occupying government buildings that ministries need, he said.

The government has paid some evicted citizens about $1,200, the equivalent of six months' rent, and it recently allocated $10 billion over 10 years to build 139,000 housing units, some of which would provide housing for squatters who have nowhere else to go, Sheikhly said.

Sabah Nouri is a Shiite Muslim who lived in a hostile south Baghdad neighborhood controlled by Sunni Muslim insurgents. He warned Sunnis about fake Shiite militia checkpoints where Sunnis would be killed, and he did the same for Shiites, alerting them to fake Sunni checkpoints.

One day last year, someone left a bullet folded in a blank sheet of paper on Nouri's doorstep, a warning that he'd soon be killed. Nouri gathered his three children and his wife into the family car and never looked back. He left behind everything he owned.

With no money and no home, he also found shelter at the former headquarters of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi air force, where hundreds of others were living. But three months ago, he said, Iraqi Security Forces forced him out.

He sold his car for $700 and paid some squatters to leave another building outside the compound so that he could move in.

Then Nouri was ordered to leave that building by last Friday, but the day came and went, and no one evicted his family and him. They lie in wait, wondering when they'll be left homeless again. Although security conditions in the Iraqi capital have improved, Nouri still fears that he'd be killed if he returned to his old neighborhood of Dora.

"If they drive us out, we will take our women and children and sleep on the street," Nouri said. "We are the forgotten people."

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