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Bitter winter for Iraq's swelling refugee camps

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, Nov 23: Summer was bad. Winter will be worse. Since freezing temperatures last descended on Iraq, close to half a million people have fled sectarian violence for other parts of the country, the United Nations said.

''We have no electricity here and no running water,'' said Abdul Hussein Sachid yesterday, a tribal elder in traditional robes as he sat on a rug sipping tea outside the makeshift shack that has been home to his family of 23 for the past few months.

''We cannot live like this any longer,'' he said, squatting amid the dust and flies of a new camp run by a Shi'ite charity led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on the edge of Baghdad.

''Something must be done to help us rebuild our lives,'' said Sachid, one of some 7,000 fellow Shi'ites in camps in the area who fled the town of Haswa, south of the capital, when bands of Sunni gunmen began attacking homes there some months ago.

Violent civilian deaths hit a record high of 120 a day, according to a bi-monthly UN human rights report published yesterday. It is such violence that is driving the refugees.

After one of his sons was kidnapped and killed, Sachid left the home he owned and sold his car to buy corrugated iron and bricks to build the three-room hut that now houses himself, two sons, their wives and children. With night-time temperatures already chilly, he says there is no prospect of their returning.

''If you paved the road from here to Haswa with gold, I would never go back,'' he said. ''I can't sleep at night because I'm always worried. I don't feel safe travelling through Shi'ite areas so how can I even think of passing Sunni areas again.'' Sachid is one of at least 420,000 people to move to other parts of Iraq in the nine months since the bombing of a major Shi'ite shrine at Samarra sparked tit-for-tat reprisals that are dividing the country and Baghdad in ways resembling Bosnia or Lebanon and which many fear pave the way for all-out civil war.

Sattar Nowruz of Iraq's Migration Ministry said the figure may be much higher as many do not register their move. And he added ominously: ''We expect this to increase.'' Another 100,000 a month leave the country, the UN said -- proportionately equivalent to a million Americans emigrating every month -- draining Iraq of badly needed skills.


 ''The fast approaching winter adds another major concern for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable,'' the United Nations said. ''I was forced away from home for no good reason,'' shouted Waleed Jihad as he struggled to keep warm in a tent in the Kurdish mountain city of Sulaimaniya, 330 km north of the Baghdad home he was forced to leave by Shi'ite militias.

''I'm living in a tent because we are practising democracy in a jungle, where the mighty kill the weak,'' said Jihad, 37, a Sunni Arab from the Shi'ite stronghold of Kadhimiya where, he said, gunmen gave him a 48-hour ultimatum to get out of town.

Sulaimaniya's refugee camps, dependent on the charity of suspicious Kurdish neighbours and international Red Crescent, might be a model for the sectarian harmony many Iraqis say they remember -- Sunnis and Shi'ites live side by side in tents.

Elsewhere, religiously-based parties run separate camps.

Issam, who works in the organisation of Moqtada al-Sadr, is a volunteer at the camp housing Sachid from Haswa. He recalls some Sunnis also being there but he said fear drove them away months ago: ''Everyone's scared now of going to the others' areas,'' Issam said. ''There's a lack of trust. It's a shame.'' Sadr's Mehdi Army militia is blamed by Sunnis for some of the worst death squad violence, a charge it denies.

The movement has also gained a mass popular following by stepping in to provide welfare where the state has failed -- modelling itself on Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah organisation.

The prospect of hundreds of thousands of children growing up in such an environment -- nearly half the 26 million Iraqis are under 18 -- raises fears of a hardening of sectarian mistrust.

The UN said growing evidence of militants deliberately settling displaced families of their own sect in the homes of others who had fled reduced the chances of reversing the trend.

The hardening of faultlines is also evident as Baghdad neighbourhoods that have been home to a rich and vibrant mixture of communities down the ages are ''ethnically cleansed''. It has turned them into easier targets for attacks by rival groups.

Mortar battles between neighbourhoods, recalling Beirut in the 1970s, are becoming a new phenomenon. On a daily basis, militants in the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya on the mainly Shi'ite east bank of the Tigris appear to trade mortar fire with the Mehdi Army bastion of Sadr City.

Abu Ahmed, an electrician who works in the densely populated Shi'ite Husseiniya slum, just north of the capital, says he fled the Sunni militant stronghold of Amriya in west Baghdad but now fears for his life as militants in his new area exchange heavy fire on a regular basis with Sunnis in neighbouring Rashdiya.

''The violence in our area is intense. I married a Sunni and now her family keeps arguing with me,'' he said. ''Sometimes I just hope I wake up and find that this was all a nightmare.''


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