BBC News

Syria crisis: Iraqis flee 'sectarian violence' in Damascus

By Rami Ruhayem
BBC News, Baghdad

image captionIraqis have been fleeing the Syrian capital, Damascus. Some say they were threatened, others advised to get out

In the late evening, a busload of Iraqis arrived in Baghdad after a 12-hour journey across the desert.

With a mixture of anger and resignation, they said that they had been forced to leave their homes near Damascus by armed opposition groups.

"The Free Syrian Army ruined our lives," said one Iraqi man who had just arrived with his Syrian wife and daughter.

His wife stepped in to explain: "We live in Sayyida Zainab," she said, referring to a neighbourhood in southern Damascus.

The neighbourhood is named after the grand-daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to be buried in the Sayyida Zainab mosque.

It is popular with Shia pilgrims from all over the world, and home to many Iraqi refugees, mostly Shia.

"They evicted us," she said, staring defiantly at the camera. She was on the verge of tears, but refused to break down.

"They are not an army, they're just gangs. There's only one army, the Syrian Arab Army, and they have a right to protect the people and the country. They are in control in Damascus."

'Playing the sectarian card'

I asked her why she left if she thought the army is still in control.

image captionMany have faced a long journey and sleepless nights to arrive where they once fled

"Because we fear for our children. They're playing the sectarian card, especially in Sayyida Zainab."

Another woman described a gruelling escape from Damascus.

"Last night, we did not sleep. We waited on the street till dawn so we could leave. People just grabbed their children - Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, all of them got in cars and drove off, without knowing where," she said.

"Those who managed to get on a bus came to Iraq. Those who didn't - may God protect them - I don't know what happened to them."

One of the refugees told me he had seen leaflets in Sayyida Zainab warning Iraqis there to leave within three days.

Another said an entire Afghan family had been shot to death in their homes.

Many of these Iraqis had been in Syria for well over a decade, and others left in 2006 and 2007, as Iraq descended into its own civil war.

Their story, and the way they told it, captures a snapshot of a reality slowly unravelling in Syria and Iraq, almost in parallel; the passing of the era of Baathist dictatorship, and what many fear is the rise, in its place, of virulent sectarianism.

'My home'

One of the Iraqis coming out of the bus told me a man he knew, a follower of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was shot to death by the predominantly Sunni Free Syrian Army.

What, I asked, about rumours which have been circulating for months that al-Sadr's men had been fighting alongside the regime in Syria?

The crowd around me offered a prompt and collective denial, and one young man even volunteered a counter-rumour.

"Yes. There are Iraqis fighting in Syria," he said, observing with satisfaction the look of surprise on my face.

"The commanders of the Free Syrian Army are all Iraqi," he told me with a penetrating gaze and a slight nod of his head, to make sure I got the nuance - Iraqi Sunnis was the unspoken explanation.

It was a striking feature of the descent into sectarian division; an eagerness to believe the worst about the others, with or without proof, and to reject anything bad about one's own.

As everyone prepared to leave the station, the Syrian woman asked me not to use the interview we had on camera, because she would still like to return to Syria and feared retaliation for what she said.

But could she return anytime soon, I asked?

"I couldn't stay away," she shot back, with fire in her eyes. "It's my home."

Resting on her arms was a sleepy three-year-old who just wanted to get to bed - the daughter of a Sunni Syrian mother and a Shia Iraqi father, going back and forth between two countries which seem to be racing each other to the abyss.