Beaten and banished

After years of special treatment under Saddam, Palestinians in Iraq are getting a brutal postwar payback.

Published May 14, 2003 9:23PM (EDT)

Though her light brown hair is matted with dust and her eyes are swollen from crying, Ibtesam Yahya Al-Assa'ad seems to glow when she talks about the Iraqi TV melodrama she starred in many years ago. Now a 43-year-old widowed mother of two, she continued to study theater as a graduate student until the war. She clutches a copy of her master's thesis, "The Aesthetics and Principles of the Environmental Theater," as if to prove that she doesn't belong in the barren refugee camp that's been her home since she fled anti-Palestinian violence in Baghdad two weeks ago.

Al-Assa'ad is one of 850 Iraqi Palestinians living in a refugee camp 50 kilometers over the Jordan border, near the squalid town of al-Ruweished. The refugees report a kind of anti-Palestinian pogrom in Baghdad: People are being evicted from their homes at gunpoint; their businesses are being expropriated; they are subjected to threats, robberies and beatings. A 26-year-old named Fouad pulls up a tie-dyed pant leg to show the bullet wound near his knee. He was shot when gunmen came to his house, fired a Kalashnikov at him, and said: "You are Palestinian. Get out."

But Fouad doesn't have anywhere else to go. Like most of the other refugees at al-Ruweished, he was born in Iraq, the child of a family that migrated following the 1948 war in Israel. He was part of a community of Iraqi Palestinians that numbered around 90,000, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees. The community was favored and protected by Saddam Hussein's regime, which provided some of them with free housing in a show of Arab solidarity against Israel.

Now that the regime is gone, Palestinian refugees say, many Iraqis are turning on them, exacting revenge for what they perceive as the Palestinians' unfair advantages. With the U.S. failing to protect them, they're defenseless against the outbreak of communal violence that they say has driven them from their homes forever. Most are willing to restart their lives almost anywhere, if only they can find a safe, stable country that will have them.

Nazima Sulaiman, a 50-year-old mother of seven wearing a black robe and white hijab over her head, says that on the day Baghdad fell, a gang of armed men came to the house where she lived rent free and threatened her and her extended family, demanding they leave. "Ask Saddam to find you another home," they taunted her. With the streets in chaos and nowhere to go, though, Sulaiman's family stayed put. Two days later, while the family was having breakfast, someone tossed a grenade into their house. Her cousin's baby girl was killed, "her body smashed completely," she says. Seven others were injured.

According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, these attacks are part of a wave of violence against non-Iraqis living in Iraq; other victims have included Iranian Kurds, Sudanese and Somalis. The report notes that not all the Palestinian victims went to Jordan -- hundreds are living in Red Crescent tents on the soccer field of Baghdad's Haifa Sports Club.

Of course, Baghdad has been so convulsed with violence that there are victims from every ethnic group, but the Palestinians say they are more than just incidental casualties of chaos and looting. According to them, the explosion of violence between Iraqis, particularly Shiites, and Palestinians is part of what a merchant named Husam ali Hasan calls "an ancient hate." Aziza Ismail, a 53-year-old mother of five, recalls being threatened by Iraqis when she'd go shopping, but says, "We were in Saddam Hussein's protection."

Not all the refugees were cared for by the Iraqi government; many middle-class people in the camp insist they lived ordinary lives, side by side with Iraqis. "I didn't take anything from Saddam Hussein. I lived like the Iraqi people," says Baha'a, a 28-year-old office worker. "But the Iraqi people think we take their rights. I had Iraqi friends before the war, but I discover that Iraqi people are changing. They destroyed their country, burned their government buildings, and are stealing our houses."

Many people say armed mobs seized their shops and businesses -- that is, when they didn't destroy them outright. Thirty-eight-year-old Mohamed Abdullah owned a coffee shop in Baghdad. The day after the city fell, one of his customers came in with his family. All of them had guns, and they took it over. He, his wife, and their four children were also thrown out of their home.

These people seem blindsided by what has become of their lives. One man's Al-Rasheed Bank book shows a balance of 37 million Iraqi dinars, about $18,500. The bank was looted and he doesn't know if he'll ever recover the money, but he holds out the bank book as if offering evidence that he once amounted to something. Carsten Voelz, the CARE project manager for the camp, says that one man was complaining about the camp's food -- mainly bread and beans. "'It's not the food, it's the principle," Voelz said, recounting the man's complaint. "'If I could just go to the store and buy food -- I have $30,000 in my pocket.'"

In Al-Assa'ad's tent her 14-year-old son, Hassan, wearing plaid shorts and a T-shirt, sits in the corner and plays on his laptop, while her grave 16-year-old son, Sinan, watches his mother grow increasingly upset as she starts shouting, "Why am I here?" When he's alone, Sinan says the family will soon be returning to Baghdad, because "it's too horrible here." He was in his last year of high school and is still thinking about his examinations. But his mother is vehemently against going back, ever. "I don't have any place to go there," she says. "I want to go anywhere where there are good schools for my kids, where I can continue my Ph.D. and live a good life. We are human. We have a right to live." As she speaks, Sinan stares at the floor.

In interviews, none of the refugees expressed a desire to go to the West Bank or Gaza Strip, those troubled areas that might one day form a Palestinian state. Like many others in the camp, Al-Assa'ad hopes for admission into Jordan, whose population is 70 percent Palestinian, if only to stay there until she finds refuge in a third country. Many of the refugees have Jordanian relatives, even Jordanian spouses. But Jordan doesn't want them. Human Rights Watch reported that, in order to cross the Jordanian border, many Palestinian refugees had to sign documents promising to return to Iraq when the situation in Baghdad stabilizes.

These Palestinians, though, say Baghdad will never again feel safe to them. "All my relatives are in Jordan, but we will go anywhere except Iraq," says Aziza Ismail. "I'll never go back to Iraq. We're not safe with the Iraqi people."

Meanwhile, more refugees are trickling in every day. A man who owns a sewing factory says he's getting calls from friends and relatives in Baghdad warning him not to go home. "They ask if there is hope here or not," he says. "I tell them we are waiting."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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