Feature: Long-time Iraqi exiles look homewards with anxiety and hope
SHIRAZ, Iran, May 27 (UNHCR) - "Saddam has been our ruin, the ruin of an entire country and of my family. He has taken everything I had and destroyed my life. He has murdered my 22-year-old son and killed my 4-year-old daughter. Today, all that is left for me is just the hope of being able to return and die in my country."
Amina, a 55-year-old Iraqi widow, has lived in southern Iran's Servestan refugee camp for the last 10 years since leaving home after losing two children to Saddam Hussein's brutal rule.
"They came with their planes and helicopters and bombed us. Our house caught fire and I was wounded in one arm. We all fled and dived into the swamp to escape the flames. In the chaos that ensued we lost contact with Zahara, who was four. We looked everywhere for her and when, after many hours, we finally found her, she was already dead, drowned," said Amina, tears swelling in her eyes.
"Two years later, the time came for my son, a young man who didn't even yet have a moustache. Saddam had him hung at 22 years of age because he opposed the regime. He died leaving a wife and three children of whom I haven't had news since."
Amina is among the more than half million Iraqi refugees and a similar number of unregistered Iraqis under UNHCR's protection worldwide. With the fall of Saddam's regime, these Iraqis are now looking forward to the time when they can return home, despite the very real problems of insecurity in some areas.
Iran shelters over 200,000 Iraqi refugees, more than half of the world's recognised Iraqi refugee population.
Beginning in the 1970s and intensifying during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Feili Kurds like Amina were forced to leave Iraq. Feili Kurds trace their origin back to Iran, which their ancestors left generations ago, but unlike most Kurds who are Sunnis, Feili are Shiites. Most are now stateless persons, lacking Iranian documents because they lost ties with their ancient motherland, as well as Iraqi papers, which were requisitioned when they were expelled.
Among the other Iraqis who were persecuted under Saddam were the marsh Arab residents of Iraq's wetlands that were drained by Saddam in order to clear out the rebellious group. Deprived of water, in a short time these lands became arid and unfit, forcing thousands of marsh Arabs to leave for Iran.
Waves of additional Iraqi refugees were similarly displaced into Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and following a 1988 offensive launched by the Iraqi Army - Operation Anfal - that culminated in the use of chemical weapons in Halabja.
Further to the north, the situation was no better. "We were at home, in Kirkuk, with our three young children, when they started bombing us from the sky," recalled Mohammed, a 45-year-old Kurd who has been living for 12 years in the Jahrom refugee camp, in south-western Iran's Fars province.
"We didn't have time to pick up any of our belongings. With just the clothes we were wearing and the money I had in my wallet, we fled towards Erbil, but they soon arrived there also. The only thing we could do to survive was to flee to Iran," said the man, who left behind a house and a store.
Today, Iraq's refugees in Iran and other countries live with the knowledge that they can finally return home, but it is a feeling that is fraught with doubts and uncertainty.
A feeling of anxiety permeates Iran's refugee camps. Aid workers from the UN refugee agency and officials of Iran's refugee agency, BAFIA, are currently working to finalise the implementation of the Repatriation and Reintegration Plan for Iraqi refugees, collecting information and requests from the refugees themselves.
A major boost towards raising the funds necessary to help Iran's Iraqi refugee community and other exiled Iraqis to return home is this year's "Pavarotti and Friends" charity concert, held on May 27 in Modena, Italy.
Proceeds from the event will go to supporting UNHCR's repatriation efforts for Iraqi refugees, an operation the refugee agency expects to last into next year and cost $118 million initially.
In addition to the Italian tenor, artists Bono, Eric Clapton, Lionel Richie, Ricky Martin, Queen, Zucchero, Laura Pausini, Deep Purple, Andrea Bocelli and Liza Minnelli are contributing their talent for the annual concert that has raised millions of dollars for UNHCR and other charity causes over the past 10 years.
In order to ensure that the Iraqi exiles get the information and aid they require, UN refugee agency staff have been meeting with refugees in Iran's camps for months to gauge their interest and needs.
What emerges from every meeting is a great enthusiasm at the prospect of going home, restrained though by the knowledge that many of the exiles lost everything in their flight to safety.
"The Iraqis, unlike the Afghans, harbour great expectations regarding the aid they will get and they believe that the time has come for them to benefit from the oil resources of a country that isn't ruled by Saddam Hussein anymore", says Tage Zeinieldin, a UNHCR repatriation officer.
"Here in Iran we are finalising the operational phase of the repatriation process, but its timing will depend greatly on the way the situation on the ground develops in Iraq," says Zeinieldin. "The type of assistance that will be provided to these people will depend on the contributions of the international community."
What is certain, though, is that a new optimism is being felt among Iraqi refugees settled in more than 40 countries worldwide. The feeling of hopelessness that could once be felt in the refugee camps in Iran as well as in reception centres in Berlin or Rome has given way to the hope of finally being able to take life back into one's own hands.
By Laura Boldrini