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Refugees return appalled { April 16 2003 }

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Misery Follows Refugees Streaming Back to Baghdad

By John Daniszewski
Times Staff Writer

April 16, 2003

BAGHDAD -- Along a gritty highway on the outskirts of Baghdad, in an area of onion sellers and car-parts vendors, the families kept coming Tuesday.

Homeward bound, on the back of trucks packed with tires, diesel cans, blankets, pillows and plastic toys but most of all with humanity tens of thousands of people who had run away from the Iraqi capital when the fighting started were coming back.

They were seeing their city for the first time since the war: the burned-out shells of tanks and overturned buses lining the roads, the destroyed telephone exchanges, the portraits of Saddam Hussein painted over or raked with gunfire, the unbelievable sight of U.S. tanks rumbling through their streets, topped by grinning soldiers offering friendly waves.

For many, it had been a long, exhausting trek away from home. Some had been gone nearly a month, sleeping in half-completed houses in the desert, on sand or concrete, covered with blankets that could not keep out the night cold. They drank water from rivers or wells that were not very clean. They subsisted on rice, bread and sugared tea, dreaming of a bit of meat.

Blaming Americans

While they were coming to terms Tuesday with the new reality, many were seething quick to blame the Americans for everything that had befallen them and all that awaited them when they reached their homes.

When a pair of American journalists stopped to talk with the returnees along the Abu Ghraib highway that connects the capital with western Iraq, they were soon enveloped in a swarm of people, shouting complaints and invective.

"No good Bush!" shouted Assad Saleh, a 37-year-old electrical company worker. "He doesn't stop the looting, he only protects the oil. There are no salaries. No companies left. We can do nothing. There is no gasoline. There is no security. They said they wanted to give us freedom, but we are free only to have this situation." Mohammed Sayel, 36, a former Foreign Ministry worker who now sells cars, recalled how he fled with his wife and six children on the first day Americans came into Baghdad. His brothers and their families made their total group 16. "The troops were at our house. We escaped and left everything," he said.

Conditions were terrible where they stayed near the Syrian border, he said. "I would prefer to die than to stay in the desert," he said, yet his homecoming did not bring him any happiness.

He found his house filled with broken glass the windows had been shattered by nearby bombing. He said he had seen looters kill a man while stealing his car, and knew of a neighbor who died of appendicitis because the hospital was not open. The city still is without running water and electricity and has been ravaged by thievery and arson, meaning many people will not have jobs to return to even when there is security in the streets.

"Yes, we were under the oppression of President Saddam Hussein all these years, and we wanted to be free," Sayel said. "But another miserable situation has set in."

Hassan Saadi, a 55-year-old trader, decided Monday to return to Baghdad from Haditha, also near the Syrian border. "I heard that Baghdad is getting better, and I was afraid for my house," he said. "Besides, our food was running out."

About 1,000 refugees from the capital stayed in that one small town, in an area where farmers grow dates and oranges and supplement their income with fishing. Saadi had set out from his home in southeast Baghdad on March 18, just before the war began, taking 27 family members with him, including his wife and four children plus the children's spouses and children.

Bombs fell around Haditha, Saadi said, and one of his daughters was slightly injured by shrapnel. There were no beds, and "one week it was very cold at night," he said. A friend he made while in Haditha had a large white truck, whose open flatbed could accommodate 70 people. The Saadis climbed aboard Tuesday morning, with five other families, for the eight-hour trip back to Baghdad.

Saadi rode in the cab while his wife, children and grandchildren helped fill up the back. There were more than a dozen babies. The women wore black chadors or white scarves on their heads. Along the way, they looked out on the debris of war and looting and wondered what they would find on their return.

"I hope that I will find my house still standing," Saadi said. "I put lots of locks and bars on the door."

Most of the families were heading to northeast Baghdad, near the Mother of All Battles Mosque, and the truck stopped there. But Saadi and his clan live in the southeastern part of the city, an area called Jamila, which means "beautiful." So as dusk settled on Baghdad, Saadi and his children were on the edge of a highway seeking transportation. When two battered cars finally appeared, he managed to squeeze the entire clan in, except for a few who were able to ride with friends. The fare demanded for the taxi 7,000 dinars, about $2 was seven times what it used to be, Saadi said.

Along the way, Saadi passed three tanks of U.S. Marines who are conducting regular patrols to deter looters.

"We don't like this situation," he said of the American presence. "It is true, we wanted Saddam Hussein to leave the country, but not in this way."

Hussein, he believed, could have been pressured harder to leave voluntarily. Saadi is convinced that Hussein is still in Iraq, hiding.

Passing a telephone exchange destroyed by bombings, Saadi was asked how long he thought it would take to restore Baghdad. "It will take us at least five years," he answered, but then reconsidered. "Iraqis like to work. As soon as they feel safe, they will get back to work and apply themselves," he predicted.

Indeed, along the way, men could be seen sweeping the sidewalks of debris. Piles of uncollected garbage were being burned at the curbs.

A Sigh of Relief

At last, the family members reached their street in Jamila and climbed out of the cars, smiling. The house, a low brown building with a tiled driveway and a small yard lined with roses, had emerged unscathed.

There was no water or electricity, and Saadi had trouble using his crowbar to get down the bars he had welded in place to keep out thieves. But it was home.

Neighbors came out to embrace them and Saadi gave a sigh of relief, saying proudly that his was one of the city's safest neighborhoods.

"Stay with us tonight," he invited the two journalists who had ridden with him.

"Have you ever tasted real Iraqi food?"

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

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