Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO)
new figures on the disintegrating health situation in Iraq, where, according
to the group, 100 people a day die, on average, and countless more are wounded.
Of the injured who manage to make it to an emergency room, 70 percent face a chance
of dying there. Many don't reach clinics or emergency rooms at all, given the
horrendous security conditions in the country. (Most knowledgeable observers
believe that all death counts are low-ball numbers, given the increasing problem
of gathering accurate figures amid the mayhem.)
In Iraqi hospitals, drugs and equipment are increasingly scarce, while ever
more health professionals have joined the general exodus from the country. "The
daily violence coupled with the difficult living and working conditions," reports
WHO, "are pushing hundreds of experienced health staff to leave."
Here are a few other bits of information from the WHO report, according to
Elisabeth Rosenthal of the
New York Times:
"80 percent of Iraqis lack access to sanitation, 70 percent lack regular
access to clean water and 60 percent lack access to the public food distribution
system. … As a result of these multiple public health failings, diarrhea and
respiratory infections now account for two-thirds of the deaths of children
under 5. … According to a 2006 national survey conducted by UNICEF, 21 percent
of Iraqi children are chronically malnourished."
And then there's the poorly covered refugee crisis – probably the worst on
the planet at this moment – gripping the country. Almost 4 million Iraqis have
had to leave their homes, according to Refugees
International. But don't just rely on some impartial NGO for your information.
Here's a ballpark estimate
quoted recently in an interview with David Petraeus, the general in charge of
the president's "surge plan" in Iraq:
"'It's a big competition right now among a variety of groups; and, again
in an environment, in Baghdad in particular, [that is] very heavily colored
by an influence of the sectarian violence.' Neighborhoods have been depopulated,
and General Petraeus believes that 'hundreds of thousands, maybe millions' of
Iraqis have been displaced."
Recently, TomDispatch regular Dahr Jamail, who covered the war in Iraq from
Baghdad for a while, visited some of the beleaguered refugee camps and centers
in Syria that are trying to cope with the tens of thousands of desperate Iraqi
refugees arriving each month. Jamail is a remarkable figure. A young man who
originally went to the region on his own to cover the war, he gives "independent"
journalism a name to be proud of. Our premier investigative reporter, Seymour
Hersh, said this of him recently, in offering
criticism of American mainstream journalism's attribution practices at an
al-Jazeera media conference:
"There is a young journalist here, Dahr Jamail, whose stuff has been very
prescient, and I've four or five times included the brave accounts of some of
his work in my stories. … It's not just at The New Yorker, it's [also]
at the New York Times where I worked very happily for a decade – the
first thing you [editors] cut out is any mention of anybody else. That's such
a disagreeable aspect of our profession, the competition. Rather than credit
a competitor we'll ignore the story. This is general. You all know what I'm
Now, consider the view from Syria through Dahr Jamail's eyes and click to accompanying
photos by photojournalist Jeff Pflueger. Tom
"I Am Now a Refugee"
The Iraqi crisis that has no name
by Dahr Jamail
Since the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq began
in March 2003, that country's explosive unraveling has never left the news or
long been off the front page. Yet the fallout beyond its borders from the destruction,
disintegration, and ethnic mayhem in Iraq has almost avoided notice. And yet
with – according to United Nations estimates – approximately 50,000 Iraqis fleeing
their country each month (and untold numbers of others being displaced internally),
Iraq is producing one of the – if not the – most severe refugee crisis on the
planet, a crisis without a name and without significant attention.
For the last two weeks, I've been in Syria, visiting refugee centers and camps,
the offices and employees of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR), and poor neighborhoods in Damascus that are filling up with desperate,
almost penniless Iraqi refugees, sometimes living 15 to a room. In statistical
and human terms, these few days offered a small window into the magnitude of
a catastrophe that is still unfolding and shows no sign of abating in any immediately
Let's start with the numbers, inadequate as they are. The latest UN figures
concerning the refugee crisis in Iraq indicate that between 1-1.2 million Iraqis
have fled across the border into Syria; about 750,000 have crossed into Jordan
(increasing its modest population of 5.5 million by 14 percent); at least another 150,000
have made it to Lebanon; over 150,000 have emigrated to Egypt; and – these figures
are the trickiest of all – over 1.9 million are now estimated to have been internally
displaced by civil war and sectarian cleansing within Iraq.
These numbers are staggering in a population estimated in the pre-invasion
years at only 26 million. At a bare minimum, in other words, at least one out
of every seven Iraqis has had to flee his or her home due to the violence and
chaos set off by the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Yet, as even the UN officials on the scene admit, these are undoubtedly low-end
estimates. "We rely heavily on the official numbers given to us by the Syrian
government concerning the Iraqi refugees coming here," Sybella
Wilkes, the regional public information officer for the UNHCR told me, while
we talked recently at the
main refugee processing center in Douma, a city on the outskirts of the
Syrian capital. Even the high-end UNHCR estimate of 1.2 million Iraqi refugees
in Syria (a country of only 17 million people) was, she told me, probably too
According to Wilkes, the Syrian government, using tallies taken from its southern
border posts, privately estimates the number to be closer to 1.4-1.5 million
Iraqis in Syria. The UNHCR operation here, desperately under-funded and short
of staff, does not have people on the border tallying numbers and has no way
to check on the real magnitude of the disaster underway.
Yet, in their work, they can feel its oppressive weight daily. Erdogan Kalkan,
a 35-year-old Turkish UNHCR employee of 15 years, told me that the overworked
staff has already scheduled a total of 35,000 appointments with refugees seeking
aid in Syria; only 25,000 of those have actually had their cases addressed –
and that barely scratches the surface of the problem. "We have been increasing
our processing capacity from the beginning," he said, while puffing on a cigarette.
We were speaking in a newly converted warehouse where Iraqi families now can
meet with UNHCR workers in cramped white cubicles and be interviewed about why
they left Iraq and what their most immediate needs are.
UNHCR's budget for Iraqis in Syria in 2006 was a bare $700,000, less than one
dollar per refugee crossing the border. UNHCR needs far greater financial resources
even to begin to help the mass of Iraqi refugees in the country, as well as
food, medicine, and aid from other UN agencies. At the moment, it is essentially
the only UN agency assisting Iraqis in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. UNICEF and
other UN agencies have voiced interest, but as yet have provided little support
in Syria, according to Kalkan.
Adham Mardini, the public information assistant for UNHCR in Damascus, told
me their budget in Syria has risen precipitously to $16 million for 2007, although
that, too, remains far below what would be necessary simply to fulfill the most
basic needs of the most desperate of the refugees. It adds up to a little over
$13 per Iraqi refugee per year – if you don't include the refugees in Syria
from Somalia, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other war-torn areas for whom UNHCR
is also responsible (along with UNHCR overhead). Iraqi refugees receive food
supplements from UNICEF, but only in the most severe cases of need, and cash
is simply unavailable for distribution.
Back in late 2006, UNHCR in Damascus started out as the most modest of operations
– with two processing clerks, each seeing between five and seven cases daily.
Now, there are 25 clerks processing more than 200 cases daily, not to mention
guards, drivers, new computers, a Red Crescent aid station at the center, a
new bathroom, and plans for adding a child center, psychological counseling
services, and a community center before the secretary-general of the UN visits
later this month.
Yet all of this is still nowhere near enough to keep up with the implacable
flood of Iraqis entering Syria every month. Iraqis, who now comprise a little
over 8 percent of the population of this small country, tell stories about why they
left their land and what they are dealing with today, which these numbers, staggering
as they are, do not.
More Than Numbers
"I left everything behind," Salim Hamad, a former railroad worker from Baghdad,
told me. "My house was empty when I left, and I have no idea what became of
it." We met in a small tea shop in the sprawling Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.
It is perhaps not inappropriate that Yarmouk is primarily a Palestinian refugee
camp, since the Iraqi diaspora represents the largest exodus of refugees in
the Middle East since the state of Israel was created in 1948. The camp is an
uninspiring mass of high, gray apartment buildings through which snake crowded
roads. According to locals, tens of thousands of Iraqis have already joined
their ranks, with the numbers increasing daily, and Salim Hamad is not atypical
of the new arrivals.
Five months ago, Salim had to sell his car, his furniture, and most of his
other belongings simply to raise enough money to bring his wife and three children
to Syria. They had grown tired and fearful, he told me, of seeing corpses in
their streets every day.
Because Jordan's pro-U.S. King Abdullah had long since clamped down on Iraqi
entry to his country, for Salim and countless others, Syria has been the only
available destination. Yarmouk, with electricity and running water, is, in fact,
one of the better areas for refugees. The two other main refugee camps into
which Iraqis are now flooding, Jaramana and Sayada Zainab, present far grimmer
living conditions, including more than 10 people sleeping in rooms without beds,
lacking potable drinking water and in some cases heat, and with intermittent
Other Iraqis are living in poorer city neighborhoods, eating up their savings,
sometimes relying on the goodwill of Syrian friends or relatives. Given visa
restrictions, which prohibit Iraqis from working here (except, of course, in
the black-market economy), when often meager savings run out, the crisis is
sure to worsen exponentially.
UNHCR recently offered the following staggering projection: According to its
best estimates about 12 percent of Iraq's population, now assumed to be about 24 million
people, will be displaced by the end of 2007. We're talking about nearly 3 million
ever more destitute Salim Hamads by the New Year. (Add to that Iraq's growing
population of internal refugees and its spiraling civilian death tolls and you
have the kind of decimation of a nation rarely seen – with, undoubtedly, more
A report released March 22 by the NGO Refugees International calls the flight
of Iraqis from war-torn Iraq "the world's fastest growing displacement crisis."
"The situation now is pushing Syria and Jordan to the maximum," the UNCHR's
Wilkes told me. "Syria's 'open door' policy is extraordinary, but economically
and socially we wonder how long it can be maintained. We're very aware of the
impact on these governments this crisis is having. We're hoping the international
community will help share the burden."
The primary trigger for this crisis was the 2003 invasion and occupation of
Iraq, and yet President Bush and his top officials have taken no significant
steps whatsoever to share in the resulting refugee burden. To date, the administration
has issued only 466 visas to Iraqis. Under recent pressure from the UN, it has
said that it would offer an additional 7,000 visas – but without either announcing
the criteria for accepting such refugees or even when the visas might be issued.
Upon hearing this paltry number, an Iraqi refugee said to me in disbelief: "Seven
thousand out of over four million Iraqis who have either fled their country
or are internally displaced? … I don't know if he could insult us more if he
"I ask all nations, particularly the United States, to do all that they can
to help us," was the way Qasim Jubouri, a banker who fled Baghdad with his family
in order to keep them alive, put the matter to me. "Since the U.S. government
caused all of this, shouldn't they also be responsible for helping us now?"
Like Salim, he too left for Syria with nothing more than some clothing and
his meager savings. Now, the money he brought is running out and he has no idea
how he will feed his family when it's gone.
Ahmed has a similar tale to tell. "I was a financial manager of seven companies
in Baghdad, but I had to leave my house, my car, and just about everything."
After militiamen fired on his car in the once upscale Mansoor district of Baghdad,
Ali fled to Jordan. He returned to Iraq to try again, but once more faced death
in an attack in which six employees from his management firm were killed.
And even that wasn't the end of it. "We had 11 engineers from one company detained
by the Mahdi Army [the militia of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr]. We never heard
from them again. I knew then that I had to drop everything and run for my life."
Ali does not see himself returning soon. "I don't expect to go back for at
least 15-20 years. I have left everything behind, and now I have nothing but
a small food store I run here. But it is not enough. Not the UN, nor any government,
least of all the Iraqi government, is doing enough to help us." (The Syrian
government, thus far, maintains a policy of looking the other way when it comes
to modest or menial jobs Iraqis find that don't put Syrians out of work.)
Another Iraqi refugee told me of being detained by Mahdi Army militia members
and having a rod forced down his throat as part of his "interrogation." He was
lucky to come out of the experience alive. Many, on either side of the worsening
sectarian struggle, do not. The slaughter of Sunnis by the Mahdi Army and the
slaughter of Shi'ites by Sunni extremist groups have become commonplace.
Despite the fact that Sadr recently ordered his militia to focus all its attacks
on occupation forces, scores of dead bodies turning up on Baghdad's streets
each day prove otherwise.
Iraqis who worked with, or have been in any way associated with, the American
military or occupation authorities are faring at least as badly, if not worse.
Everyone collaborating in any way with U.S. forces in Iraq is now targeted –
along with their families.
"I used to work with the Americans near Kut," Sa'ad Hussein, a 34-year-old
electrical engineer told me, "I worked for Kellogg, Brown, and Root [then a
subsidiary of oil-services giant Halliburton] to construct an Iraqi base there
until I got my death threat on a piece of paper slipped under my door on my
return to Baghdad. I had no choice but to flee."
"Things are getting so much worse in Iraq," was the way Salim Hamad, who fled
five months ago, summed up life in his former homeland as our interview was
ending. "There is a big difference between those who left four years ago and
those who left four days ago. Everything in Iraq is based on sectarianism now
and there is no protection – neither from the Americans, nor the Iraqi government."
Fleeing "Freedom and Democracy"
Sa'ad Hussein, who arrived in Damascus only three months ago, described the
Baghdad he left as a "city of ghosts" where the black banners of death announcements
hang on most streets. There is, he claimed (and this was verified by others
we spoke to among the more recent refugees), normally only one hour of electricity
a day and no jobs to be found.
"I was an ex-captain in the Iraqi army, and I think that's why I was threatened,
in addition to working with the occupation authorities," he explained. When
asked how many of his former Sunni army colleagues had also received death threats,
he replied, "All of them." It was not safe, he told me, for him to go back to
the now largely Shi'ite Iraqi Army because, "I may be killed. This is the new
freedom and democracy we have."
On all measurable levels, life in Baghdad, now well into the fifth year of
U.S. occupation, has become hellish for Iraqis who have attempted to remain,
which, of course, only adds to the burgeoning numbers who daily become part
of the exodus to neighboring lands. It is generally agreed that the delivery
of security, electricity, potable water, health care, and jobs – that is, the
essentials of modern urban life – are all significantly worse than during the
last years of the reign of Saddam Hussein.
"The Americans are detaining so many people," Ali Hassan, a 41-year-old from
the Hay Jihad area of Baghdad, said as we spoke in front of the central UNHCR
office in downtown Damascus. "And my brother was killed by Shi'ite militiamen
after he refused to give them the keys to empty Sunni houses we were looking
As scores of other refugees crowded around photographer Jeff Pflueger and me,
wanting to tell their stories, Hassan, a Shi'ite who also fled Baghdad just
three months ago, added, "Now I can't go back. I am a refugee and I still don't
feel secure because I still fear the Mahdi Army."
"So many Iraqis never leave their homes now because they are too afraid to
go out due to the militias," Abdul Abdulla, a 68-year-old who fled Baghdad with
his family, insisted, having literally grabbed the microphone I was using to
tape my interview with Hassan.
From the volatile Yarmouk area of Baghdad, Abdulla, a Sunni, said Shia militia
members waited on the outskirts of his neighborhood in order to detain anyone
trying to leave. "We stayed in our homes, but even then some people were being
detained from their own houses. These death squads started coming after [former
U.S. ambassador John] Negroponte arrived. And the Iraqi government is definitely
involved, because they depend on [the militias]."
While talking with Abdulla, I noticed a woman in a black abaya or gown
covering her entire body, one of her arms in a cast, standing nearby.
When I approached Eman
Abdul Rahid, a 46-year-old mother from Baghdad, she willingly told me her
sad story, all too typical of civilian life in the Iraqi capital today. "I was
injured," she said, "because I was near a car bomb, which killed my daughter.
… There is killing, and threats of more killing, and explosions daily in Baghdad."
"America is the reason why Iraq was invaded, so we would like the American
administration to give aid to us refugees," she added, "I would like people
to read this and tell Bush to help us."
Six Months and Counting
Sundays and Mondays at the
UNHCR refugee processing center in Douma are mob scenes. Refugees, some
of whom have been waiting several months for their first interview at the center,
an event crucial to finding aid, arrive in taxis, minibuses, on foot, or on
buses specially hired by UNHCR. They line up outside a freshly painted white
and blue gate, manned by security guards, and slowly trickle into the converted
warehouse to wait eagerly for their names and numbers to be called.
On one of my Monday visits, as my friend Jeff and I approached the warehouse-turned-processing
center, there were more than 1,000 Iraqis crowded around the entrance hoping
to get in. Taxis honked their way through the gathering crowds of refugees,
each of whom held a number representing his or her place in line, along with
passports and other required papers.
As we were being escorted inside the center by UNHCR public information assistant
Adham Mardini, he told us that the previous day between 6,000 and 7,000 Iraqi
refugees had descended on the place. On that day alone, 2,179 future appointments
had been scheduled, each representing an average of 3.6 people, since many of
them are set by the heads of families.
"Sundays and Mondays are always crazy here because these are the days we set
their appointments," he commented. "And these people now have to wait up to
six months just for their interview."
Some Iraqis showing up are, however, in need of emergency care. Refugees often
arrive without medicines, and with serious heart problems, kidney failure, sizable
burns across their bodies, or ill-healed wounds – and that's not even to speak
of the psychological problems they face from violence seen or experienced or
from lives completely uprooted. All of this, the minimalist UNHCR center must
try to face. A surprising number of arrivals are simply put in ambulances to
be taken either to local hospitals or treated by the Syrian Red Crescent.
Under a makeshift roof outside the warehouse but inside the outer gate, families
lucky enough to have their numbers come up on this day are filling out forms.
Men stand writing on sheets of paper pressed against walls; women hold crying
babies amid the cacophony and chaos. Periodically, a UNHCR volunteer appears
at the door of the building with a bullhorn to announce the names of those who
should prepare to be interviewed. Most of them have been waiting at least four
months for this day.
Iraqis continue to crowd through the door from the road as I talk with Mardini.
"As you can see, the Baghdad security plan is working very well," he says with
a wry smile. From hundreds of miles away, it's his organization that is providing
what "security" is available, and it can't hope to keep up with the steadily
increasing numbers of desperate Iraqis.
To make matters worse, UNHCR officials have been noticing an increase in Kurdish
refugees from the previously more peaceable northern regions of Iraq. "Over
50 percent of all newcomers in the last two weeks are Kurds," Kalkan, the UNHCR veteran
of 15 years whom I'd spoken with before, says as he joins Mardini and me at
the door. The two of them express a modest mix of frustration and discouragement,
given the circumstances. After all, just as UNHCR in Damascus begins to ramp
up to accommodate the massive numbers of refugees they have to deal with, the
flow increases confoundingly.
Perhaps an hour later, when we make our way back to the street, the hoard of
refugees has miraculously dwindled to only a few dozen forlorn Iraqis outside
the now-closed door. We can't understand what made them all disappear so quickly.
"I came here three times to get this appointment because it was so crowded,"
Iraqi doctor tells me, as he holds number 525, showing his place in line.
"I arrived today at 5 a.m. with my family of 11 for this appointment, and now
they have postponed it!"
He had been one away in line when the door was closed for the day. Due to the
burgeoning number of refugees, half the UNHCR interviewers had to be shifted
to the task of scheduling future appointments for newcomers. Thus, half of the
interviews for this day had been canceled.
"Now I have to wait another two months," the doctor told me, as I stared into
his tired eyes. He's still holding his number in his hand as a small crowd begins
to build around us and others start to pour out similar stories of frustration
and despair. As voices rise in frustration, Jeff flashes me a look of concern
and we decide to thank them for their time and move on. Other than writing their
collective tale of woe and taking their photos to show the world the faces of
this growing crisis, there is little else we can do.
Abu Talat, a 58-year-old father of four, was my primary interpreter during
my eight months in Iraq. Six months ago he finally gave up hope of remaining
in his home in Baghdad, took his family, and like hundreds of thousands of other
Iraqis fled to Syria. One of the luckier refugees, he had enough savings to
rent a humble two-room apartment in Damascus.
He has always been, and remains, a proud man. Having served in the Iraqi army
until 1990, he holds military traits like dignity, honesty, and honor in the
highest regard. While I've always offered to help him in any way I could as
his life disintegrated, only once did he ever accept a meager sum of money from
Upon my arrival in Syria, he invited me to his home to share dinner with his
family. After the meal, while we were drinking strong tea, he asked his daughter
to show me the certificate from the UNHCR that proves that they are officially
refugees. He handed me the paper and watched me as I read it.
The document lists him as the head of the family. A black-and-white photo of
him is at the top of the page, and the names and ages of his family members
at the bottom. Just above them is the following text:
"This is to certify that the above named person has been recognized as a
refugee by the United Nations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
pursuant to its extended mandate. As a refugee, (he/she) is a person of concern
to the office of the United High Commissioner for Refugees, and should, in particular,
be protected from forcible return to a country where (he/she) would face threats
to his or her life or freedom. Any assistance accorded to above/named individual
would be most appreciated."
I glanced at him, not knowing what to say, then handed the paper back. He looked
it over himself, as if in disbelief, then let his gaze focus on nothing in particular,
while his chest heaved as he visibly struggled to master the urge to weep. Finally,
he said to no one in particular, "I am now a refugee."
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who has covered the Middle East
for the last four years, eight months of which were in occupied Iraq. Jamail
is currently writing for Inter Press Service and al-Jazeera English, and is
a regular contributor to TomDispatch.com. Jamail's forthcoming book, Beyond
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Independent Journalist in Occupied Iraq
(Haymarket Books), will be released this October. Jamail is currently reporting
from Lebanon. His reports are regularly available on his Web site, Dahr
Jamail's Mideast Dispatches.
Jeff Pflueger is a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer and web developer.
His work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal,
Outside, and other periodicals. Pflueger has worked closely with Dahr
Jamail for three years building and maintaining his Web site. He also maintains
his own Web site. Some
of his photos from Syria can be seen be clicking on the links in this article.
Copyright 2007 Dahr Jamail