Cover story -- Iraq
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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

Iraq in Amman

Violence makes middle class refugees

Amman, Jordan

Not long ago an American Jesuit priest living in Amman was asked by some expatriate Iraqi Christians of his parish to attend a funeral for five teenage boys and maybe say a few words.

The priest was Fr. Denis Como of Massachusetts and the murdered teenagers were all Iraqis from Baghdad where neighbors suspected they had been killed for their jobs at a local factory.

At the funeral with no bodies -- the boys were now newly buried in Baghdad -- a man sang a dirge as expatriate Iraqi mourners shuffled in, sat through a brief service, ate a meal and went home.

Como, as he tells it, was struck by the rote nature of the event, which he interpreted as a sort of guarding against Iraq’s infinite layers of tragedy -- where your teenage boys can survive the car bombs, kidnappings, curfews and American attacks only to be killed in a desperate and senseless attempt to create job openings at a local factory.

“If this were an Irish funeral,” he said, still marveling, “they’d at least want a drink.”

Sipping his black tea he added: “But the Iraqis I meet here -- they’ve been through so much.”

Jordan is Iraq’s neighbor to the west. Amman, its capital city, is a nine-hour drive from Baghdad if you can manage to avoid the firefights, checkpoints, convoys, road pirates, bomb craters, high-speed accidents and border complications.

Amman has absorbed a constant stream -- occasionally a flood -- of Iraqis since the invasion in 2003. Most of the newcomers are concentrated in a handful of burgeoning neighborhoods that now bear, in Iraqi shorthand, the names of neighborhoods back home: names like Monsour and Karada.

The war in Iraq has come to Amman, and the evidence is everywhere.

At Jordan’s Queen Alia airport, on the outskirts of the capital, I deplaned with a stout American man wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. Waiting for him just inside the gate was a tiny Arab man, a driver, holding up a sign with black-marker block letters: DYNCORP -- the controversial American security contractor that is still funneling men into Iraq.

Security, of course, is big business. In the airport’s main terminal (near computer screens tracking the arrivals and departures of the newly revitalized Iraqi Airways) a billboard for Asbeck Armoring of Bonn, Germany, carries the words: “When driving to Iraq, be sure to go armored!”

Driving to the city center, the concrete barriers and security men outside the big hotels are a sort of memorial to the victims of three suicide bombers from Iraq who exploded themselves and many more late in 2005.

Look to the sky, and you might see a U.S. Army transport plane headed toward or away from Iraq.

Turn on a television and you can watch some of the 20 Iraqi satellite channels that have emerged since Iraq’s dark era of isolation and repression was shattered into countless complex and precarious pieces by invasion and occupation.

Evidence of the unmitigated disaster in Iraq is most striking in the stories of the war’s native witnesses who have fled to the calm (some say excruciating boredom) of Jordan. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 250,000 Iraqis living in Amman. But the number is likely much higher, given the countless Iraqis living quietly and undocumented among their more formally expatriated brothers and sisters.

That people are fleeing a war zone should come as no surprise. But in the case of Iraq, the puzzling thing is that after a 10-year war with Iran, a brief but devastating attack by the United States and its international partners in 1991, more than a decade of crippling economic sanctions and decades under a brutal dictatorship, why are they leaving now? The answer, often, is kidnappings. The kidnapping of Westerners working in Iraq -- from advocates to engineers -- has spiked recently. But with a dwindling number of Western journalists, who are increasingly fortified in their hotels or embedded with the military, reporting on the kidnappings of Iraqis -- usually a criminal attempt to extract money from the victim’s family -- is scarce. Among Iraqis living in Amman, it seems that everybody knows somebody who has been kidnapped. A doctor from Baghdad, who himself spent four days as a hostage, knows six. A computer science student from a Baghdad technical college: three. A civil engineer (who counts slowly on his fingers when I ask, mumbling names): five.

A doctor, a computer science student and a civil engineer -- all essential members of civil society. They are just the kind of people that a dramatically faltering Iraq needs most. And they have all left.

The story of S.

Consider the story of S. (Fearing for their own security and that of their families, S. and others I interviewed asked that their names not be used.) S. is the doctor. Until recently, he had worked in a private laboratory he owned in Baghdad. His wife was a pediatric specialist in her own private clinic. Walking to work one morning, S. was confronted by three men who sneaked up from behind, waved a red sedan over, and shoved him in through the back door and to the floor, where he was covered and held down by the full weight of two of his abductors.

Hustled into a home a short drive later, he was blindfolded and bound with the stiff metal of an aerial antenna and then pistol-whipped, kicked, threatened and offered lunch.

Sometime in the afternoon, his abductors phoned his wife. One man demanded $150,000 while another slid the blade of a sword gently along the neck of S., who shrieked and bled. His wife, hearing that, wept and begged: “We do not have that much money.”

The abductors hung up.

S. was told the money his family paid would fund the efforts of the mujahideen. Despite the sword to the neck, S. did not believe these men to be committed fighters of the Islamic variety because they drank arak (a pungent, anise-flavored liquor that S. could smell on their breaths when they got close to yell at him and beat him) and watched satellite sex channels into the night.

The next day there was another phone call to the wife and S. was cut again. This time the cut was on the arm and the price was lowered to $100,000. Again S. shrieked, his wife wept, and no agreement was made.

And again, the abductors hung up.

At the home of S. waited his wife, his college-age son and his preteen daughter. With them were friends and family. When the phone rang again they were all together in the living room and now there was haggling: “Give us $50,000. Last offer. We’ll kill your husband.”

“I’ll give you $30,000,” said the desperate, sobbing wife.

The phone went dead. The wife of S. ran to the bathroom and vomited.

On the fourth day it was agreed: $30,000 for the return of the beaten, sick and hungry S.

The wife of S. was told to take the money “to the place where you buy all of your groceries” in a brown bag. (The abductors had studied the entire family for weeks -- and even knew what the son spent on lunch at the university. “Too much,” the abductors told S.)

Nobody was to be with her or behind her, especially not the police. Any hint that she was not alone and S. would be returned to her dead.

Police meddling was never a problem. Nobody calls the police in Baghdad. (Two of the kidnapping stories I heard in Amman involved abduction-for-ransom by opportunistic police officers.)

Near the grocery store the money changed hands but there was no S. The wife of S. went home and waited, holding her phone and staring at the street in front of her house. It was there that S. emerged from a taxi he had hired near the point of his release just a couple neighborhoods over. He was unable to stand straight and he looked half-dead.

He had with him his cell phone with a new number programmed into it: the lead abductor who told S., upon his release: “Don’t tell anybody you paid $30,000. Tell them you paid $4,000. If word of your ransom gets out, you’ll be kidnapped again.” And then this: “If you have any trouble with any other group, here is my number, call me, I’ll help you. No charge.”

The family was renting a flat in Amman by the end of that week. I met S. at his flat to hear his story. His wife and two children interjected with details and corrections and the absurd urge we sometimes have to laugh at tragedy we’ve experienced but don’t really believe.

It was during this conversation, glancing at the news on the family’s television set, that I first see the footage of a pleading Jill Carroll, the young freelance reporter abducted in Baghdad.

“Through the war with Iran,” S. tells me with one eye also on the television, “we never left. We stayed in Iraq. Through the war with America in 1991, we stayed. Through the sanctions, when doctors were making $2 a month, we stayed.”

Here the wife of S. jumps in: “And the invasion in 2003, we were happy for it, we thought: Now we will have McDonald’s and Burger King!” (You do, I told her, in the fortified “Green Zone.”)

“Through all of it,” S. continues, “we stayed.”


“But now -- with the kidnappings -- it is too much.”

To die in Baghdad

Iraqis who have left -- at least the ones whom I have met -- are justifiably evasive about any talk of a return. It is too soon to be planning a return, with Iraq slipping daily into darkness. (Literally -- one man I spoke with told me his family in Baghdad hadn’t had power for three days when he last called to check in. When the power came back, it came back for two hours.) But the matter is often handled indirectly and with stories about other returns that take on an almost mythical quality.

R., who worked before and after the invasion for a French nongovernmental organization that focused on the well-being of Iraq’s children, spoke of an old man, an Iraqi expatriate who returned to Baghdad not long after the invasion and in the midst of the great chaos of many Iraqis fleeing. “I’m an old man and I am going to die,” he told R., “and if I am going to die, I am going to die in Baghdad.”

R. left in October 2004 after receiving a death threat on his mobile phone. He was committing the great sin in the new Iraq: working with foreigners in the genuine interest of his country. The fact that his might-be killers had his mobile phone number was ominous -- they already knew too much. R. did not leave immediately, but he couldn’t stay long. When a cousin was kidnapped (a for-ransom kidnapping, R. said, by men in an Iraqi police squad car and wearing police uniforms who took their victim to a police station) he called his aunt to offer support. “Please don’t come by,” she told him, having heard about the death threat. “We have enough trouble already.” Soon he was on his way to Amman. He found an apartment there and sent for his wife and children.

Today, he learns about Iraq from phone calls to family and friends and from the Iraqi satellite channels he can pick up in Amman. The distance is driving him crazy. Trained in the implementation of large-scale humanitarian projects, he watches the news from Iraq with a fixer’s eye. “I can write a proposal for you right now,” he told me at a coffee shop in Amman. “I can write it, but who will implement it?”

“There are so many needs,” he continued. “So many big projects -- real projects. But no one can implement them.”

The problem, he said, is security. And corruption. And inexperience. American nongovernmental organizations are tainted. (Many of them arrived in military convoys.) International agencies have fled their Baghdad headquarters and are largely based in Amman. (The exodus began with the bombing of the United Nations building in 2004.) There are as many as 3,000 organizations registered with the government, according to figures by the NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq, all of them created since the fall of the Hussein regime, which did not allow Iraqi NGOs, but they are often inexperienced, underfunded or have too close an affiliation with religious parties influential in the new government or with Americans.

R. spoke of a disconnect between the international organizations now based in Amman -- with the money and the experience -- and authentic Iraqi groups trying to accomplish what they can in Iraq isolated from the funds, knowledge and even the trust of the international NGO community. “How can you know who is doing good work?” R. asked. In a country still suffering from a failed banking system and where business is done with duffel bags of cash, there is no way to know how donor money is being spent. So important projects languish, unfunded in drawers and dreams.

Even immediately after the invasion, R. said, when Iraq was flooded with international organizations and corporations looking to engage in the country’s reconstruction, there was a poverty of efficacy. “My organization would show up at a hospital, and 20 NGOs had been there already.” Everybody was hitting the same places -- operating, it seemed, off the same list. Meanwhile, R. said, less familiar places suffered invisibility.

Today R. is working for a friend’s business in Amman and he is not happy. “In my old work,” R. said, “I used to spend money to make people happy -- now people spend money to make me happy.”

He has been offered work with the French nongovernmental organization he gave years of his life to. “They told me I could go to Darfur,” he said. “I told them if I am going to be dead, I am going to be dead in Iraq.”

Wrestling contradictions

F. is 25. He studied tourism management in Baghdad before the war and worked as a cashier in hotel restaurant. He is from a densely populated and very poor neighborhood in Baghdad known in headlines as Sadr City. Under the Hussein regime, it had been christened, wryly and against the wishes of its Shiite inhabitants, Saddam City. Residents, then and now, often call the neighborhood by an older name: Thawra -- Arabic for “revolution.”

F. left the chaos of Baghdad with dreams of settling in Canada, where a Canadian friend was helping to push the proper papers through. But the pushing of papers was not speeding the process and F.’s legal status in Amman expired. When I met him he was undocumented and itching for something to happen. One year into his Canadian visa process he was losing hope and thinking of going to Damascus to live for a while. Maybe he would even return to Baghdad. His mother -- who often calls him crying, “Who is cooking your food? Who is doing your laundry?” -- would be thrilled.

Supported in part by friends he had met at the hotel in Baghdad and later working as a translator and fixer in post-invasion Iraq, he took what jobs he could find to make ends meet. Working for Jordanians quickly became a non-option. A day’s work would often be met without pay and a dismissal in Arabic: “Ya’teeq al’ afi” (literally, “May God give you good health,” usually a syrupy way of saying, “Thank you,” or in this case, “Thank you is your only reward”). It is the story of undocumented people everywhere.

Through some friends working with Iraq-focused nongovernmental organizations in Amman, F. found work for an organization working on Iraqi expatriate voter education. On the day of the December 2005 elections, F. appeared at each of Amman’s 12 polling stations -- on an educational poster demonstrating the voting process step by step. His friends joked that he could take the poster to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and get instant refugee status -- surely Amman’s poster boy for Iraqi democracy was on someone’s death list. It was a joke that F. never himself told.

I met with F. repeatedly over three weeks. Each time he was paralyzed by wrestling contradictions, his leg shaking nervously as he looked at his options from every angle as he had done a million times already, always arriving at nothing. He missed Baghdad terribly, but he missed a Baghdad that was more memory than reality. He ached for a new life in Canada, though he only knew what he had heard from an uncle already living there. He wanted desperately to leave Amman (“It’s a cemetery!” he yelled while we were walking along a busy street one afternoon), but he wanted to be close to the Canadian embassy. Baghdad offered no opportunities and Damascus, just a few hours away and another popular destination for Iraqis fleeing the war, was too unfamiliar.

Recently, the decision was made for him -- as he suspected it would be. After several close calls with the Jordanian police (they stormed into an Internet café checking for undocumented Iraqis and wound up with the undocumented Egyptian sitting next to him) he was arrested finally in February. He had no time to collect his belongings and was driven shackled to the Jordan-Iraq border and made to walk across. He telephoned a friend in Europe to tell him what had happened. “I can’t talk long,” he said. “I don’t want anybody here to know I am speaking to a foreigner.”

Eventually, F. found a ride to Baghdad from the Jordan-Iraq border. He woke up the following morning at his home in Sadr City to news of the bombing in Samarra and sectarian fighting all over Iraq. He called a friend again: “Everybody here has a gun,” he said. Then he made his way to an Internet café and sent me an e-mail: “I hate Jordan.”

The other refugees

Anna Bachman, an American, is a different kind of refugee, a humanitarian refugee. She works for an organization that seeks to reinvigorate the legendary marshes of southern Iraq that Hussein drained in the 1990s to deprive anti-regime fighters the cover of the vast marshes and to punish the often-rebellious Shiite “Marsh Arabs” by depriving them of a unique ecosystem that had been their sustenance for millennia.

Bachman’s organization is headed by an Iraqi and based in Baghdad, but her presence in the Baghdad office would mean certain trouble for her Iraqi colleagues. So she works from Amman and periodically resurrects hope for a move to the Baghdad office. The answer is always the same. And it is always painful for Bachman, who is eager to work directly with the community she is trying to help.

Like everyone I met in Amman, she wondered aloud how long she would last before finding less obstructed work. Her organization’s funding will dry up, she said, if the situation becomes even worse in Iraq.

With headlines, pundits and diplomats insisting Iraq is still only “on the brink” of civil war, Bachman believes Iraq to be beyond the brink.

“I’ve been saying civil war for a long time. It’s tough. How do you know? Is there a clear beginning and end? ”

Describing a different kind of civil war, Bachman noted: “Since the bombing in Samarra there has been dreadful sectarian fighting. There are people who are deep into the sectarian stuff. But there have been Sunni-Shiite solidarity rallies too. The question is, which side is going to win?”

Cedric Turlan, from France, is a refugee too. He is the civil society and information officer for the NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq. The committee’s Iraqi staff does not have an office in Iraq. They work from home. Turlan said travel from one neighborhood to the next in Baghdad is too difficult and dangerous with the traffic jams, gas lines, car bombs and convoys. Having an office would be great, but people would still end up working from home much of the time.

But when a Baghdad office exists, there will be no sign indicating what goes on inside and Turlan, who still makes occasional visits to Iraq, will not be welcome lest he draw the attention of the enemies of international cooperation -- of any kind -- in Iraq.

Turlan said that the death toll among aid workers since the invasion is greater than in any other war-torn nation in the last decade -- with the exception of Angola, where 23 people died on two U.N.-chartered planes shot down in the space of a month in the late ’90s.

Turlan connects violence against aid workers to the blurred lines between nongovernmental organizations and, well, governmental organizations. Many aid groups and their U.S. funding entered Baghdad on the tails of tanks and as a result there are, at best, trust issues -- and at worst, violent resentment.

Turlan remembers last summer in Amman and sees it as an ominous sign of things to come in Jordan. Iraqis who could not afford to move more permanently to Amman stayed the summer with family or rented flats for the summer only. There were neighborhoods in Amman so packed with Iraqi traffic, he said, that you couldn’t even enter them.

R. remembers last summer fondly. He speaks of Mecca Mall (every Iraqi does), a shopping mall the better-off summer refugees and more permanent expatriates made a sort of community center. “Last summer there was a saying amongst Iraqis in Amman,” R. said. “If you are looking for somebody, maybe somebody you haven’t seen since the invasion, go to Mecca Mall on Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and you will find them.” R. found three long lost friends that way one Friday.

Turlan cautions that so far it is the wealthier who have come to stay in Jordan. The poor came, but not in the same numbers. The Jordanian government has been busy passing laws making it difficult for the poor to stay, favoring the Iraqis that have pumped untold millions into the Jordanian economy (and, to the ever increasing resentment of locals, driven up prices on fuel and food, in some cases dramatically). As sectarian violence spikes, Iraq, tragically, will be drained further of the people it needs most: The people who don’t want to fight.

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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