Monday, September 17, 2007

"I don't trust anyone"

Sectarian Toll Includes Scars to Iraq Psyche

Johan Spanner for The New York Times The return on carnage is suspicion: Zain Muhammad, whose father was slain by neighbors.
Published: September 17, 2007

BAGHDAD, Sept. 16 — Violence swept over the Muhammad family in December, taking the father, the family's house and all of its belongings in one chilly morning. But after the Muhammads fled, it subsided and life re-emerged — ordinary and quiet — in its wake.

Now they no longer have to hide their Shiite last name. The eldest daughter does not have to put on an Islamic head scarf. Grocery shopping is not a death-defying act.

Although the painful act of leaving is behind them, their minds keep returning to the past, trying to process a violation that was as brutal as it was personal: young men from the neighborhood shot the children's father as they watched. Later, the men took the house.

"I lost everything in one moment," said Rossel, the eldest daughter. "I don't know who I am now. I'm somebody different."

They are educated people, and they say they do not want revenge. But typical of those who are left from Iraq's reasonable middle, the Muhammads have been hardened toward others by violence, and they have been forced to feel their sectarian identity, a mental closing that allows war made by militants to spread.

"In the past the country lived all together, but now, no," Rossel said. "I don't trust anyone."

Iraqis have continued to flee their homes throughout the American troop increase, which began early this year, and despite assurances that it is becoming safe to return, uncrossable lines have been left in Iraqi minds and neighborhoods. Schools, hospitals and municipal buildings are quickly losing their diversity, and even moderate Iraqis like the Muhammads say they cannot imagine ever going back.

In northeastern Baghdad, Hashem, a polite 14-year-old from a different Shiite family, has an acute sense of sect. (For his safety, his last name is not being used.) The players in his soccer club are Shiite. His school is three-quarters Shiite. His five or six close friends are all Shiites. He refrains from telling a joke he likes about a Sunni politician because it might hurt the feelings of the Sunni boys.

Though the alignment is religious, in practice it is more like being on the same sports team: Hashem, like his father, is not at all devout.

"In the beginning it was a shame to say Sunni or Shiite," he said, sitting on a couch in a guest room in a heavily Shiite neighborhood in northern Baghdad, "but we know."

His school has adjusted to new sectarian imperatives; the punishment for arguing about religion is a three-day suspension. So when he fought with a Sunni boy who was making chauvinistic remarks about Shiites, the two walked away without telling the adults what the fight was about.

Part of the sensitivity comes from trauma inflicted by Saddam Hussein's government: years ago, Hashem's grandparents were forced out of their homes by local Baathists and died in the desert.

The segregation is reshaping the structure of families. On a recent Tuesday, a thin parade of tired-looking couples trudged through the office of a family court judge in Sharchiya, a mostly Shiite neighborhood in central Baghdad. Only about 5 percent of the marriage contracts he registers are for mixed-sect couples, down from about 50 percent before the war, the judge said.

"It used to be more festive," he said, after a mother in a black Islamic robe limply threw a handful of candies in his direction. The court is one of the city's few family courts, but as a testament to how separated the neighborhoods are now, just one in 10 couples he marries is Sunni.

The patterns started to form in 2005, when militants began pushing Iraqis out of their houses, a deeply personal violation that often leaves families jobless and impoverished.

In a survey of 200 displaced Shiite families living in Karbala, a southern city, researchers from Al Amal, an organization that assists the displaced, found that 60 percent were unable to take their furniture or belongings when they fled.

Rossel's father, a suit importer, was killed while packing the family's belongings into cars to move out of Dora, an area in southern Baghdad controlled by Sunni Islamists. The Muhammads were never able to return, though a kindly neighbor drove their car to them in their new, mostly Shiite, neighborhood in Baghdad. They lost their past — photograph albums, diaries and heirlooms.

Not everyone in the family wanted to know what happened to the house, but Rossel was told that a Sunni family she did not know had moved in.

"I try to imagine my room and what they do in it," she said, her voice intense.


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