An Iraqi in Syria

River Bend Blog has finally left Baghdad and moved to Damascus. Here is her moving report of her first impressions and first month as a refugee in Syria.
Monday, October 22, 2007 (Thanks Idaf)

Syria is a beautiful country- at least I think it is. I say “I think” because while I perceive it to be beautiful, I sometimes wonder if I mistake safety, security and normalcy for ‘beauty’. In so many ways, Damascus is like Baghdad before the war- bustling streets, occasional traffic jams, markets seemingly always full of shoppers… And in so many ways it’s different. The buildings are higher, the streets are generally narrower and there’s a mountain, Qasiyoun, that looms in the distance.

The mountain distracts me, as it does many Iraqis- especially those from Baghdad. Northern Iraq is full of mountains, but the rest of Iraq is quite flat. At night, Qasiyoun blends into the black sky and the only indication of its presence is a multitude of little, glimmering spots of light- houses and restaurants built right up there on the mountain. Every time I take a picture, I try to work Qasiyoun into it- I try to position the person so that Qasiyoun is in the background.

The first weeks here were something of a cultural shock. It has taken me these last three months to work away certain habits I’d acquired in Iraq after the war. It’s funny how you learn to act a certain way and don’t even know you’re doing strange things- like avoiding people’s eyes in the street or crazily murmuring prayers to yourself when stuck in traffic. It took me at least three weeks to teach myself to walk properly again- with head lifted, not constantly looking behind me.

It is estimated that there are at least 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria today. I believe it. Walking down the streets of Damascus, you can hear the Iraqi accent everywhere. There are areas like Geramana and Qudsiya that are packed full of Iraqi refugees. Syrians are few and far between in these areas. Even the public schools in the areas are full of Iraqi children. A cousin of mine is now attending a school in Qudsiya and his class is composed of 26 Iraqi children, and 5 Syrian children. It’s beyond belief sometimes. Most of the families have nothing to live on beyond their savings which are quickly being depleted with rent and the costs of living.

Within a month of our being here, we began hearing talk about Syria requiring visas from Iraqis, like most other countries. Apparently, our esteemed puppets in power met with Syrian and Jordanian authorities and decided they wanted to take away the last two safe havens remaining for Iraqis- Damascus and Amman. The talk began in late August and was only talk until recently- early October. Iraqis entering Syria now need a visa from the Syrian consulate or embassy in the country they are currently in. In the case of Iraqis still in Iraq, it is said that an approval from the Ministry of Interior is also required (which kind of makes it difficult for people running away from militias OF the Ministry of Interior…). Today, there’s talk of a possible fifty dollar visa at the border.

Iraqis who entered Syria before the visa was implemented were getting a one month visitation visa at the border. As soon as that month was over, you could take your passport and visit the local immigration bureau. If you were lucky, they would give you an additional month or two. When talk about visas from the Syrian embassy began, they stopped giving an extension on the initial border visa. We, as a family, had a brilliant idea. Before the commotion of visas began, and before we started needing a renewal, we decided to go to one of the border crossings, cross into Iraq, and come back into Syria- everyone was doing it. It would buy us some time- at least 2 months.

We chose a hot day in early September and drove the six hours to Kameshli, a border town in northern Syria. My aunt and her son came with us- they also needed an extension on their visa. There is a border crossing in Kameshli called Yaarubiya. It’s one of the simpler crossings because the Iraqi and Syrian borders are only a matter of several meters. You walk out of Syrian territory and then walk into Iraqi territory- simple and safe.

When we got to the Yaarubiya border patrol, it hit us that thousands of Iraqis had had our brilliant idea simultaneously- the lines to the border patrol office were endless. Hundreds of Iraqis stood in a long line waiting to have their passports stamped with an exit visa. We joined the line of people and waited. And waited. And waited…

It took four hours to leave the Syrian border after which came the lines of the Iraqi border post. Those were even longer. We joined one of the lines of weary, impatient Iraqis. “It’s looking like a gasoline line…” My younger cousin joked. That was the beginning of another four hours of waiting under the sun, taking baby steps, moving forward ever so slowly. The line kept getting longer. At one point, we could see neither the beginning of the line, where passports were being stamped to enter Iraq, nor the end. Running up and down the line were little boys selling glasses of water, chewing gum and cigarettes. My aunt caught one of them by the arm as he zipped past us, “How many people are in front of us?” He whistled and took a few steps back to assess the situation, “A hundred! A thousand!”. He was almost gleeful as he ran off to make business.

I had such mixed feelings standing in that line. I was caught between a feeling of yearning, a certain homesickness that sometimes catches me at the oddest moments, and a heavy feeling of dread. What if they didn’t agree to let us out again? It wasn’t really possible, but what if it happened? What if this was the last time I’d see the Iraqi border? What if we were no longer allowed to enter Iraq for some reason? What if we were never allowed to leave?

We spent the four hours standing, crouching, sitting and leaning in the line. The sun beat down on everyone equally- Sunnis, Shia and Kurds alike. E. tried to convince the aunt to faint so it would speed the process up for the family, but she just gave us a withering look and stood straighter. People just stood there, chatting, cursing or silent. It was yet another gathering of Iraqis – the perfect opportunity to swap sad stories and ask about distant relations or acquaintances.

We met two families we knew while waiting for our turn. We greeted each other like long lost friends and exchanged phone numbers and addresses in Damascus, promising to visit. I noticed the 23-year-old son, K., from one of the families was missing. I beat down my curiosity and refused to ask where he was. The mother was looking older than I remembered and the father looked constantly lost in thought, or maybe it was grief. I didn’t want to know if K. was dead or alive. I’d just have to believe he was alive and thriving somewhere, not worrying about borders or visas. Ignorance really is bliss sometimes…

Back at the Syrian border, we waited in a large group, tired and hungry, having handed over our passports for a stamp. The Syrian immigration man sifting through dozens of passports called out names and looked at faces as he handed over the passports patiently, “Stand back please- stand back”. There was a general cry towards the back of the crowded hall where we were standing as someone collapsed- as they lifted him I recognized an old man who was there with his family being chaperoned by his sons, leaning on a walking stick.

By the time we had reentered the Syrian border and were headed back to the cab ready to take us into Kameshli, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees. I read about refugees on the Internet daily… in the newspapers… hear about them on TV. I hear about the estimated 1.5 million plus Iraqi refugees in Syria and shake my head, never really considering myself or my family as one of them. After all, refugees are people who sleep in tents and have no potable water or plumbing, right? Refugees carry their belongings in bags instead of suitcases and they don’t have cell phones or Internet access, right? Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own… especially their own.

We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too… Welcome to the building.”

I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.

Comments (5)


1. Enlightened said:

The previous post, prior to this thread had a lot of us squibbling over issues such as democracy, human rights, political views etc. Sometimes ( after reading this thread ) we get re acquinted with our humanity again, when my wife and her family were stuck in Lebanon during the Hezbolaah/Isreali confrontation, and i lost contact with her for five days while they tried to cross the border into Syria to get to some relatives house for safety, I was always detached from the physical side whatever I witnessed on the news ( by ambivelance I did not care if either side suffered casualties, I thought everyone was to blame and all the participants were to blame for this conflict). Until i felt a potential for loss, I started caring that the sooner peace is concluded , the better for everybody.

Today after reading this refugees story, and relaying what my wife told me about how the Syrians treated them during this episode I am compelled to say, that whatever the Regime does, it will not sway my love for The Syrian people and populace in dealing with this situation regarding the refugees!

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October 24th, 2007, 6:13 am

 

2. Youssef Hanna said:

Dear who wrote this story,

Make it a book, i urge you; the story is moving, the style is deep and light, humour and emotion travel hand in hand from Baghdad to Damascus. Many thanks for sharing with us your experience.

Allow me however to challenge your last (political) sentence. Was “unity stolen from us in 2003”? did americans steal Saddam-era true unity? shia and kurdish revolts were crushed in blood in the aftermath of the Q8 adventure; ulemas were assassinated; was Dujail a pure nightmare, an american judicial fiction?

It could be instead that the fall of the Baathi regime only liberated a sectarian violence controlled and at the same time fuelled by repression over decades.

It could be that the (Michel Aflak) Baathi denying of true society and building institutions on laicity imported from french military training schools brought heavoc.

It could be that the iraqi tragedy reveals that societies cannot be revolutionized from upwards, changed by decree, and shd be instead governed according to their historical structures until they evolve thru time, contact with the world, reduction of social and cultural disparities.

Thanks again.

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October 24th, 2007, 6:49 am

 

3. t_desco said:

Photographs Said to Show Israeli Target Inside Syria

By Robin Wright and Joby Warrick
Wednesday, October 24, 2007; A01

Independent experts have pinpointed what they believe to be the Euphrates River site in Syria that was bombed by Israel last month, and satellite imagery of the area shows buildings under construction roughly similar in design to a North Korean reactor capable of producing nuclear material for one bomb a year, the experts say.

Photographs of the site taken before the secret Sept. 6 airstrike depict an isolated compound that includes a tall, boxy structure similar to the type of building used to house a gas-graphite reactor. They also show what could have been a pumping station used to supply cooling water for a reactor, say experts David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS).

U.S. and international experts and officials familiar with the site, who were shown the photographs yesterday, said there was a strong and credible possibility that they depict the remote compound that was attacked. Israeli officials and the White House declined to comment.

If the facility is confirmed as the site of the attack, the photos provide a potential explanation for Israel’s middle-of-the-night bombing raid.

The facility is located seven miles north of the desert village of At Tibnah, in the Dayr az Zawr region, and about 90 miles from the Iraqi border, according to the ISIS report to be released today. Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, said the size of the structures suggested that Syria might have been building a gas-graphite reactor of about 20 to 25 megawatts of heat, similar to the reactor North Korea built at Yongbyon.

“I’m pretty convinced that Syria was trying to build a nuclear reactor,” Albright said in an interview. He said the project would represent a significant departure from past policies. ISIS, a nonprofit research group, tracks nuclear weapons and stockpiles around the world.

Israel, which has nuclear weapons of its own, has not said publicly what its warplanes hit or provided justification for the raid. Syria has denied having a nuclear program. But beginning construction of a nuclear reactor in secret would violate Syria’s obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires all signatories to declare their intent when such a decision is made, according to sources at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

The new report leaves many questions unanswered, such as what Syria intended to use the unfinished structures for and the exact role, if any, of North Korea in their construction. Also unclear is why Israel chose to use military force rather than diplomatic pressure against a facility that could not have produced significant nuclear material for years. The new details could fuel debate over whether Israel’s attack was warranted.

Albright acknowledged the difficulties of proving what the site is, in part because the roof was put on at an early stage, blocking views of the foundation and obscuring any potential reactor components. In construction of other types of nuclear reactors, the roof is left off until the end so cranes can move heavy equipment inside.

Some nuclear experts urged caution in interpreting the photos, noting that the type of reactor favored by North Korea has few distinguishing characteristics visible from the air. Unlike commercial nuclear power reactors, for example, a North Korea-style reactor lacks the distinctive, dome-shaped containment vessel that prevents the release of radiation in the event of a nuclear accident.

“You can look at North Korea’s [reactor] buildings, and they look like nothing,” said John E. Pike, a nuclear expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org. “They’re just metal-skinned industrial buildings.” The proximity of the building to a water source also is not significant by itself, Pike said.

But Brannan, of ISIS, combed through a huge amount of satellite imagery to find a site along the Euphrates that matches a reactor’s specifications as well as descriptions of the attack site. The compound’s distance from populated areas was a key detail, since reactors are usually isolated from major urban populations.

The site is also close to an irrigated area, which would explain statements by some officials privy to details of the attack that the facility was located near orchards. A small airstrip about two miles away could have been used to transport personnel to the site.

U.S. and foreign officials tracking the incident said that Syria is presently trying to remove remaining structures at the site.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has acquired its own aerial photographs but has not finished analyzing them, according to an IAEA source.

In an interview published yesterday, IAEA director and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei expressed anger at the Syrians, Israelis and foreign intelligence agencies for not providing information about a suspected nuclear program.

“We have said, ‘If any of you has the slightest information showing that there was anything linked to nuclear, we would of course be happy to investigate it,’ ” he told the French newspaper Le Monde. “Frankly, I venture to hope that before people decide to bombard and use force, they will come and see us to convey their concerns.”

ElBaradei also said an airstrike could endanger efforts to contain nuclear proliferation.

“When the Israelis destroyed Saddam Hussein’s research nuclear reactor in 1981, the consequence was that Saddam Hussein pursued his program secretly. He began to establish a huge military nuclear program underground,” he said. “The use of force can set things back, but it does not deal with the roots of the problem.”
Washington Post

Here is a picture of the 5MW Yongbyon reactor:
Global Security

Interesting discussion of the earlier ABC News story here.

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October 24th, 2007, 7:48 am

 

4. annie said:

Dear Riverbend,
Welcome to Syria.
I have read you from the beginning and I believe you published a book.
If I can be of any help, and even otherwise, do leave me a message on my website.
I cannot write to your site because all blogspot sites are blocked.
Love and take care
annie

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October 24th, 2007, 8:41 am

 

5. t_desco said:

Sept 6 raid in Syria: New location clues emerge, with imagery
Ogle Earth

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October 24th, 2007, 2:41 pm

 

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