The view from the ground.

Life in Hell

Almost seven years later, the most catastrophic legacy of the Iraq war is shaping up to be the more than 2 million refugees who are locked in limbo on its borders with no hope of moving on. Here's what daily life is like in the monotonous depths of a humanitarian nightmare.


Here is the craziest non-sickening story I know about the Iraqi refugee crisis. It was told to me this October in Syria by an Iraqi architect I'll call Mazen -- a dapper, cosmopolitan man in his 60s who had worked for years with UNESCO, identifying and preserving world heritage sites throughout his country.

Here is the craziest non-sickening story I know about the Iraqi refugee crisis. It was told to me this October in Syria by an Iraqi architect I’ll call Mazen — a dapper, cosmopolitan man in his 60s who had worked for years with UNESCO, identifying and preserving world heritage sites throughout his country.

Early one morning in 2006, while Mazen and his wife were asleep in their home in Baghdad, a bomb — not a rocket or a grenade or an IED, but a bomb, easily 4 feet long, with the letters "U.S.A." stenciled on its side — tore through the wall of their house and landed on the bed between them, slamming its nose into the headboard. Miraculously, it did not explode. It did, however, wake the couple up in a hurry. They flew out of bed, whereupon the magnitude of their near miss became apparent. Mazen and his wife were entirely uninjured, except for a pair of matching burns on their right and left sides.

Awakened by the commotion, the couple’s daughter fetched the family video camera and started recording. Later in Damascus, she showed me the footage: the jagged crater in the wall, the bed with the bomb on it, Mazen in a bathrobe with a shower of plaster in his hair. A cigarette-smoking police officer showed up, casually hauled the unexploded ordnance off the bed, and lugged it away. What happened next, I asked, waiting for Mazen to describe packing up his family and coming to Syria. They cleaned the house, he said, and covered the blast hole as best they could. That night, they went to sleep in the same bed.

This story illustrates a crucial fact about refugee crises: It takes impressively extreme conditions to create them. No matter how dangerous a war zone becomes, leaving is almost always the option of last resort. Nobody wants to bid farewell, possibly forever, to a familiar and beloved life. And yet, since the Iraq war began in March 2003, roughly 4.5 million people have fled. A little over half are IDPs, internally displaced people who were forced from their communities and sought haven elsewhere in Iraq. The rest are refugees, primarily in Syria (which hosts up to 1 million Iraqis), but also in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon. Taken together, they represent one of the largest forced migrations in the world. By way of comparison, the crisis in Darfur involves a similar number of IDPs, but only a tenth as many refugees. (Refugee statistics are notoriously imprecise and frequently contested. I’ve relied here on the most recent data from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or the UNHCR.)

The number of people fleeing Iraq peaked in 2006 and 2007, with the bombings of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra and the accompanying upsurge in sectarian violence. At the time, 6,000 refugees per day streamed over the border into Syria. That figure has dropped hugely since then, but new refugees still arrive. Exactly how many is unclear because those who leave Iraq head to many different countries and do not necessarily register with the UNHCR. Moreover, human smuggling is rampant, and many people make their escape illegally. Meanwhile, comparatively few refugees are returning to Iraq. Last year, 32,550 Iraqis (or less than 2 percent of refugees) went home, and some turned around and left again upon finding that conditions there remained unsafe. According to the UNHCR, there are no large-scale returns, and the situation in Iraq remains bad enough that the international community is holding to a policy of non-refoulement — refraining from encouraging (let alone forcing) Iraqi refugees to return home.

Like Mazen and his family, most Iraqi refugees were not driven from their homes by war in any generalized sense (bombings, gunfights, rocket-propelled grenades). Instead, they fled Iraq because they were explicitly warned to leave or die. These warnings came in many forms (phone calls, text messages, bullet-filled envelopes, neatly typed memos on Mahdi Army letterhead) and in massive quantities. Mazen, for instance, stayed in Baghdad after his neighborhood became a maze of blast walls, after a nephew and nine friends were killed, after a bomb bisected his bed. But when he came home to find a noose hanging in his doorway with a picture of his daughter taped to it, he and his family were gone the next day.

This is a different kind of menace from what Iraqis endured in the past. True, for almost a quarter-century, Saddam Hussein oversaw a regime that systematically tortured and murdered up to a million citizens. But the key word is "systematically." As vicious as his regime was, there was a method to Saddam’s madness. By contrast, the violence in postwar Iraq is not centralized or predictable, and therefore cannot be avoided. Take a hammer to safety glass, and you’ll get a decent sense of just how fractured the country is and how many factions are vying, through violence, to control it.

For Iraqi civilians, the consequences of this hyperfragmentation of power have been dire. Consider, for instance, an incomplete list of reasons why you might receive one of the death threats described above. You might be from the Sunni minority (like Saddam), and therefore vulnerable to Shiite militias. Or you might be Shiite, and therefore targeted by radical Sunnis. Or you might be Shiite, but not Shiite enough. Or you might be a Shiite married to a Sunni — common before the war, potentially fatal today. Or you might be Christian, Mandean, Yazidi, Druze, or a member of any other religious or ethnic minority. Unlike Sunnis and Shiites, such minorities do not control any territory and therefore have nowhere safe to go — except out of Iraq altogether.

Other factors, too, can expose you to danger. Former higher-ups in Saddam’s government and military are prime targets for Shiite militias. Career military men face an additional threat from Iran, which, ever since the regime fell, has supposedly been working its way down a hit list of high-ranking officers who served in the Iran-Iraq War. Likewise, heaven help you if you worked for the U.S. Army, U.S.contractors, U.S.-based NGOs or media outlets, the Coalition Provisional Authority, or the new Iraqi government. Of all the ways to earn a death threat in Iraq, a relationship with the United States is probably the quickest of them all. Even teaching English can get you targeted.

So, for that matter, can teaching in general. At least 430 Iraqi professors have been murdered, hundreds more have disappeared, and thousands have fled; more than 80 percent of Iraqi universities have been bombed, burned, or looted. Equally at risk are journalists, hundreds of whom have been killed since the war began. Other dangerous careers include working in a barbershop (devout Muslims are supposed to let their beards grow; cutting them is haram, or forbidden) and selling alcohol (also haram). Failing to cover your hair if you are a woman: haram. Dancing: haram. Being gay: haram-a-rama. (To date, nearly a thousand gay men and lesbians have been murdered because of their sexual orientation.)


If you fall into any of these categories — or if your father, sister, son, cousin, or best friend does — you are at risk in today’s Iraq. The space for survival there has narrowed almost to nonexistence. There are simply too many warring forces to stay on the good side of them all.

Still, if it takes more than mayhem to create a refugee crisis, it takes more than a blizzard of death threats, too. Those threats must be credible — backed by a willingness to perpetrate the promised violence. Here, too, Iraq has earned a perverse name for itself, thanks to the exceptional brutality visited on its people. In the United States, Americans hear about bombings and gunfights, but refugees and aidworkers talk as much or more about torture. This includes mutilating victims’ genitals; removing their fingernails, teeth, and eyelids; drilling holes in their bodies with power tools; raping them, often with weapons or other foreign objects; subjecting them to mock executions; and forcing them to witness the violation and murder of other people, including family members.

And then there are the kidnappings. According to the independent research group Iraq Body Count, kidnapping-executions were the most common cause of civilian death during the first five years of the war. In other words, deliberate, one-person-at-a-time abductions and murders took more Iraqi lives than gunfire, suicide bombings, and car bombs. Many of these incidents targeted children, whose bodies were often deliberately desecrated and gruesomely displayed to send an unmistakable message to their parents: Leave. Zahra Mirghani, the UNHCR’s head of community services in Syria, told me that she had never before encountered such extreme levels of sadism. "I’ve been working for refugee operations for 22 years," she told me — including in Rwanda and Burundi. "But the stories I’ve come across in this operation, with this population — frankly, I’ve never heard anything so horrible."

Levels of violence that match or surpass anything crisis workers have ever seen. The proliferation of armed militias until no sphere of safety remains. A highly individualized campaign of intimidation. Taken together, these factors teach us a lot about the Iraqi refugee crisis. They show us how it happened — why millions of people were forced into forsaking their homes. They show us why it is impossible, at least for now, for these refugees to return. And they begin to suggest, too, the magnitude of the needs they bring with them over the border.


At the southwestern edge of Damascus, where the city crumbles into desert, a half-built housing complex looks out onto barren hills and distant military installations. The Golan Heights is just over the hills; central Damascus is an hour’s bus ride away. For two Iraqi artists whom I’ll call Fata and Mahir, and for their two young daughters, this is home. But it is also a vivid visual metaphor for the plight of all Iraqi refugees — who live, almost without exception, on the literal and figurative margins of the major cities of the Middle East.

This is one of the most distinctive features of the Iraqi diaspora: It is the largest urban refugee crisis in history. The UNHCR’s protocols were developed primarily for refugee camps, and it has had to adapt to serving a population that is scattered throughout cities. The cities themselves have had to adapt as well. Their already overburdened social services — from schools and immigration offices to health clinics and sewage systems — are staggering under a massive influx of arrivals. Meanwhile, other desperately needed services simply don’t exist, such as mental health care (recall that all refugees are survivors of war, and many of torture) and domestic-violence protections. (Family violence has risen dramatically among refugees, spurred by factors ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to the psychological stress of unemployment.)

At the same time, the urban nature of the crisis has placed a unique strain on the refugees themselves. Refugee camps leave a lot to be desired, but they do have the advantage of consolidating both assistance and community. David Brigham, the country director for Mercy Corps in Jordan, came to that job from a stint in Sudan. "Every problem in the world is insignificant compared to these massive human rights issues in Africa," he said. But, he continued, "On an individual level, the people in the camps in Darfur are a lot happier than the people here. They didn’t fall as far, and they still have their communities. They aren’t so isolated…. In one day in Darfur you’ll see a lot more smiling faces than I’ve seen here in two years."


On the outskirts of Damascus, Fata and her family have few reasons to smile. Granted, they are safe, and that is saying a lot. Granted, too, their host country has been, by any measure, generous. Fata’s older daughter, who is 6, just began school, thanks to Syria’s pledge to open its public education and health-care system toIraqis. The country has also stood by its promise not to send refugees home while conditions in Iraq remain unsafe. (Iraqis who commit crimes do risk deportation — a particular problem for the many girls and women who have been forced by economic necessity into prostitution.)

Still, their lives are as barren as the landscape. "I hold my children and turn everywhere and ask, ‘Where should I go’?" Fata said. "If someone tells you, ‘This is the road to a job, to a home, to your dreams,’ OK: You walk. But what do you do if there is no road?" She and her family can’t go back to Iraq, where insurgents bombed her husband’s gallery and threatened to kill them both. They can’t go to a new country because they have been denied resettlement. And they can’t build a future for themselves in Syria because they cannot legally work and have no possible path to citizenship.

Without employment, Fata, like most refugees, is slowly sliding into destitution. For the Iraqi middle class, an estimated 40 percent of which is thought to have fled, this descent into poverty is psychologically as well as financially devastating. "I fell in love with my husband because we had so many shared dreams," Fatatold me. "We thought: We’ll open a gallery together. We’ll make a home for our kids. A lot of it was simple stuff. We’ll go on such and such a trip when the girls are older. We’ll paint this room that color." In Damascus, she cried when she told me that none of their dreams have come true. Instead, like so many refugees, they are living in crowded quarters in rented rooms in poor parts of town, and surviving — to Fata’s shame and anger — off U.N. handouts.

If Iraqi adults are suffering under these conditions, their children are faring worse. Many of them missed out on years of education in Iraq, where the war made going to and from school impossible. As refugees, they resume their education only to find themselves thrown into the middle of an entirely unfamiliar (and in many cases French-based) curriculum. Rather than face the humiliation of studying with far younger students, many drop out. Others quit in order to work. In southern Lebanon, I met a family of five that survives off the oldest son’s janitorial job. He works 40 hours per week and earns $17. He is 13 years old. It is no more legal for him to hold a job than it is for his parents, but minors are far less likely to be arrested and deported. As a consequence, child labor is rampant in the refugee population. And because their work is illegal, children are highly vulnerable to exploitation in every form, from on-the-job beatings to withholding promised wages.

All this is to say nothing of the massive psychological burden borne by Iraqi kids. I was struck by how Fata’s daughters played on the floor beside us as she described the graphic murder of a family friend. When I asked if she would prefer to speak in private, she declined — as did every other parent I spoke with on similar occasions. Their kids, they all pointed out, had already lived through it.


What do you do if you can’t work and can’t go to school, if you have left behind your country, your community, and your career, to say nothing of your dead? Sadly, the answer is: almost nothing. Life as an Iraqi refugee is one of emptiness bordering on erasure."Sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off if I’d died in Iraq," Fata told me. "And sometimes I think I did."

This was a refrain I heard over and over from refugees. Unable to live a full life in exile, most are reduced to hoping for resettlement, for the chance of starting anew in Sweden, Australia, the United States. They circulate every shard of information about life abroad (never mind that much of it is daunting these days, given the global financial crisis and the increasingly difficult conditions for resettled refugees, especially in the United States). They leave their cell phones on at top volume day and night, waiting for the call from the UNHCR that will change everything.

All this is a painful spectacle because, for most of them, resettlement will never be a reality. Resettled people account for a tiny fraction of the overall refugee population, somewhere around 3 percent. (The United States has taken in roughly 30,000 Iraqis since the war began; another 25,000 or so have gone to Europe, Oceania, or elsewhere.) With resettlement such a restricted option, the only viable solution for the vast majority of refugees is a stable Iraq. But that, as the refugees know better than anyone, is not likely to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, the people of Iraq, including close to half of what was once its secular, educated middle class, stay home and watch TV for up to 16 hours a day. They sweep factories and sell their bodies. They sleep the attenuated nights of the chronically depressed. They represent, as clearly as anything else, the failures of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. They already constitute a humanitarian crisis, and many fear that they will soon constitute a security crisis as well.

This is hardly a foregone conclusion. On the contrary, almost every Iraqi I met expressed a graceful ability to separate the American people from its government, not to mention an overwhelming desire never to experience violence again. But it’s easy to see where the fear of dangerous radicalization comes from. With 2 million people exposed to violence, exiled from their homes, cut off from their communities, cut short in their educations, and consigned to poverty, you don’t have to be particularly imaginative — or particularly paranoid — to worry about the results.

Nor do we need to look far from the current crisis to speculate about what will happen if we let it continue to fester. In 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel caused some 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes. More than 60 years later, the failure to peaceably resolve that refugee crisis has led to the single most intractable, misery-inducing, and dangerous problem facing the Middle East, if not the world. We owe it to all of us not to let that happen again.

Kathryn Schulz is a freelance journalist and author of the forthcoming book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

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