Iraq: No escape from danger for returning refugees

Caroline Hawley spoke to one of Iraq's three child psychiatrists: Dr Haidar al-Maliki, a consultant at Baghdad's main children's hospital.

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During the height of Iraq's civil war, neighbouring Syria was a sanctuary for Iraqis - but as the Syrian conflict has intensified, Iraqi refugees have again been forced to flee, this time back to their homeland, as the BBC's Caroline Hawley reports from Baghdad.

Tears roll down Saad Jebor's bearded cheeks, as his nine-year-old daughter describes the fighting she witnessed in Syria - horrifying violence from which her father was unable to protect her.

Six years ago - at the height of Iraq's sectarian civil war - Mr Jebor and his family escaped Baghdad to the safety of Syria. As a Sunni married to a Shia woman, living in a predominantly Shia neighbourhood of the capital, he had received death threats.

But, as the war in Syria escalated this summer, he had to flee for his life for a second time. And - along with thousands of other Iraqi families - he is back in Baghdad, he says, with only the clothes he was wearing when he escaped.

"I feel like I am nothing," he sobs.

Saad's daughter Doa is traumatised. His family of six cannot return to the home they used to live in, which was targeted by a mortar shortly before he escaped to Syria.

Saad Jebor and two of his daughters (Doa, far right) The Jebors fled Iraq for safety in Syria - but the conflict there has driven them back to Iraq

So Saad Jebor - a proud man with a kind face - now lives in his father-in-law's home.

"I don't know what to say," says Mr Jebor, who used to sell tyres in Baghdad and then made a living in Syria washing cars.

"I swear to God - I have spent my life struggling. We thought that we would have a life in Syria. But then we found ourselves facing the same violence there."

"So now we are back. And everything I have gained in my life has disappeared like sand through a sieve."

Blast walls and checkpoints

Outside a government office in Baghdad, frustrated Iraqis queue up in the heat to receive grants to help them restart their lives - four million Iraqi dinars per family, around $3,400.

The country they are returning to is significantly safer than the one they left. But bomb attacks are common, and there are fears that al-Qaeda in Iraq is now regrouping.

Start Quote

I am so tired and disappointed in our government - this is an oil-rich country and they've done nothing for us”

End Quote Hikmat al-Taie

Virtually every day police officers or government officials are assassinated using guns equipped with silencers.

Baghdad is a city of blast walls and checkpoints. But the tight security too often fails.

At a city centre restaurant, Hikmat al-Taie serves sandwiches to a steady flow of customers. His brother, Hassan, who was 28, used to run the business. But in July a bomb went off outside where Hassan was standing on the pavement.

Hikmat watched his brother die.

"His eyes were open," Hikmat remembers. "He was still alive but his body was peppered with shrapnel."

"I shouted at him 'Hassan, Hassan,' but he didn't reply. He couldn't. Then his eyes closed and he was gone. Everyone loved Hassan."

Hikmat, a Shia Muslim, now struggles to get through the day. "I don't sleep at night any more. I close my eyes, but it is useless."

"Our whole family has been destroyed by this, especially my mother," he says. "I am so tired and disappointed in our government. This is an oil-rich country and they've done nothing for us. Nothing at all."

With barely contained fury, he adds: "I regret the day that I voted for them."

Many Iraqis I spoke to in Baghdad are disappointed and angry. They worry, too, about the future.

The darkest days of Iraq's civil war are over, but there is still simmering sectarian animosity.

And, with Iraqi Shias and Sunnis now reported to be fighting on both sides of the civil war in Syria, there are fears that the conflict there will re-ignite Iraq's own sectarian tensions.

A power-sharing agreement between the different communities of the country has led to political paralysis.

Iraqis complain of pervasive corruption. And basic services are just that - basic at best, in a country with great wealth and enormous social needs.

Psychological trauma

Iraq is a nation of people who have been collectively traumatised. And yet there are only three child psychiatrists in the whole country.

Iraqi children The conflict has blighted a generation of Iraqi children

Dr Haidar al-Maliki must be one of the busiest men in Iraq. The narrow corridor outside his small clinic in Baghdad's main paediatric hospital is crammed with desperate parents and young patients with autism and cerebral palsy, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Although his caseload of children with psychological trauma has diminished since 2008, Dr al-Maliki is still over-worked.

And there are areas of the country and of the capital which remain too dangerous for him to visit.

He feels guilty that he cannot do more.

In 2005, a gunman came to his private clinic and shot Dr al-Maliki - twice - simply because he was a doctor.

"The man asked if I was Dr Haidar and then he fired," he remembers.

He was lucky that the bullets only hit his shoulder.

I asked Dr al-Maliki if he had ever been tempted to leave the country himself.

"I cannot leave," he says. "Our people need us. They feel threatened and insecure."

"They are aggressive and nervous - even some of my doctor colleagues. I am concerned about how this will affect our society 20 years from now."

Back in a suburb of Baghdad, Saad Jebor and his wife Shaima worry for their children - traumatised twice over.

"I just hope for the best for the family," Shaima told me. "Things are better here than in Syria now and they are better and more stable than when we first left Iraq."

With a small sigh, she adds: "Anyway, it's better to die in your own country."

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