Hassan Ameer saw it as his patriotic duty to return home to Baghdad. He fled to neighboring Syria more than a year ago after extremists threatened him at his bakery. But now, with violence ebbing in the capital and the Iraqi government encouraging refugees like Ameer to come home, he decided it was time. "I know that the electricity is bad and that life is expensive when it comes to heating fuel, gas, and food, but that doesn't matter anymore," he says. "All Iraqis must go back now or else we will lose Iraq for good."
While Ameer is trying to adjust to being back, his wife, along with their two children, still refuses to leave Syria. "He calls me daily, talking about how he is happy to see his friends and family again. But yesterday, I heard that al Qaeda bombed three liquor stores in Baghdad, which means it's still risky there," she says, asking that her name not be used. "I hope that Hassan comes back soon and forgets about opening the bakery in Baghdad again."
Even within the same household, Iraqis are deeply divided over whether their country is really on a path back from the brink of anarchy. The Iraqi government, eager to demonstrate an improving security climate in Baghdad, has offered cash incentives of $800 a family to lure home refugees who fled the violence over the past four years, even dispatching several buses to bring back Iraqis living in Syria. While exact numbers are hard to come by, thousands of refugees are returning home, mostly to Baghdad. But it is more a trickle than a tide given that an estimated 2.2 million refugees are in Syria and Jordan.
Most of those returning appear to be motivated more by economic hardship or visa problems than by any belief that the worst violence is behind them. Syria has tightened its visa rules, forcing many Iraqis to leave. Few jobs are available in Damascus, and a United Nations survey of Iraqi refugees in Syria last month found that a third say their financial resources will last for three months or less. Saif Sadek, a former prison guard and taxi driver, sold his Baghdad house at a steep loss in 2005 to escape threats from Shiite militias. After two years in Syria, he spent all his money and had to return to Baghdad, where he is staying with a cousin. "As a man with a family, not having a house and without money, it is a challenge that no man can take," says the 42-year-old father of four. "The only thing that God had mercy on me is that I finished my money when security conditions in my neighborhood had improved and the death squads were gone."
Sadek and the others who are coming back are rediscovering a capital city that has changed dramatically. Many neighborhoods that were once mixed are now either almost entirely Sunni or Shiite. New cement walls close off many streets and alleys. Some of the changes are encouraging—neighborhood groups working to clean the yards of abandoned homes and streets, local barbershops and bakeries reopening, and new militias, called "awakening councils," made up of residents paid to patrol the streets and man checkpoints. "There was a dramatic change in my Al Amel neighborhood, where Sunnis and Shiites are brothers again," says Sadek. "I couldn't believe my eyes."
But work is scarce, basic goods remain prohibitively expensive, and security remains tenuous. "Things are always on the edge here, where one day can be good but the next might not be," says Sadek, who is applying for a job with the local awakening council. "I really don't think that it's a good time to be in Baghdad." Many others are returning to find their homes destroyed, occupied by squatters, or surrounded by new, more hostile neighbors. When U.N. officials surveyed refugees returning on a government-sponsored bus convoy, they learned that only a third were able to return to their original homes.
U.S. officials pressured the Iraqi government into suspending the bus convoys because they are concerned that Baghdad has not made sufficient preparations should a larger number of refugees decide to return. The worst-case scenario would be that many who return resort to violence when they find their homes have been taken over or destroyed. Even short of that, Iraq's social safety net remains limited. Refugee advocates are alarmed by the Iraqi government's recent decision to cut the food rations—on which some 10 million rely—by as much as half in 2008.
Some of the Iraqis who came home are desperate to return to Syria already. "Families are going back home, but they are not satisfied, especially when they have forgotten the sight of weapons and the sound of gunshots and car bombs for years, and now they have to walk in streets filled with armed people covering their faces with black masks," says Ali Abd al-Rahman, a carpenter who returned to Baghdad in November after his Syrian visa expired. "I am remembering the beautiful nights of Damascus, taking my wife out with the kids any time I want. I really miss security." Today, he is hoping the Syrian government will approve his request for a new visa.
With Amer Saleh in Damascus, Syria