- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

About 90 Shi’ite families have fled their homes for a small makeshift camp in Baghdad’s Akhademiya neighborhood during the past two months, part of an exodus of tens of thousands from mixed Sunni-Shi’ite areas where tit-for-tat executions have become part of daily life.

They include Ahmed Kathum Khalas, a driver who worked in the Beiji refinery 125 miles north of Baghdad, who fled Saturday with his wife and three small children with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

They found their house burned when returning from an outing with a chilling threat spray painted in white on the building’s charred walls:

“Leave or we will burn you too.”

Mr. Khalas, 31, and his family turned away that moment and headed to Baghdad, to his parents’ home.

But his parents, his three married brothers and their families were already living in a space of about 1,000 square feet.

There was not enough room for another five persons, he said, speaking in one of a series of interviews yesterday at the camp by a local reporter.

“The first night was the worst night of my life, it was embarrassing. I lost my honor, because you are living where everyone can see you and your wife,” said Mr. Khalas.

He said he spent all his time trying to protect his wife from being seen when she was changing, and standing guard outside the camp’s one bathroom when she needed to use it.

“There is no hope that I will get anything back from everything that I had built,” he said, to the anger of others living in the camp listening to the conversation.

Mr. Khalas continued: “I will not get anything from this government, or any government, and I cannot buy or rent a place. I thought about killing myself, but I have a wife.”

Stories of desperation abound in the camps, small ones like this deserted former Fedayeen camp where the 90 Shi’ite families were staying, dependent on neighborhood handouts and help from the local mosque. The Red Crescent also provides food aid and blankets, here and at refugee camps that have mushroomed throughout the country in recent months.

According to the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM), tens of thousands of families have been displaced by an explosion in sectarian violence since February, when a major Shi’ite shrine was blown up by unknown attackers.

Whole Shi’ite families are moving from mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, and the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar and Salahadin, to Shi’ite areas such as Basra and Karbala.

Sunni families are also fleeing majority Shi’ite neighborhoods in Baghdad and Shi’ite cities such as Karbala and Basra for Sunni areas such as Anbar.

The exodus is documented in an IOM report this month, and in similar reports by the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration.

In one example, the ministry documents 3,598 families displaced around the capital, Baghdad, living in two major camps where they are receiving food rations.

The ministry documents another 324 families that had moved from northern, western and southern parts of Baghdad to southern Muthanna province. They were given tents and food rations.

“Food rations were not sufficient. Displacement is ongoing,” the ministry said.

Based on six individuals per family, the ministry estimated that by April 12, nearly 66,000 people were out of their homes, in need of mattresses, food, blankets, hygiene kits and short-term employment.

The Iraqi Red Crescent estimates that 80,000 people have fled their homes for makeshift camps.

Mohammed Hassan Tanish, 49, who also worked in Beiji for 30 years as a guard for the refinery before he was forced to leave two months ago, also lost everything.

He said his three sons, who were also working as guards, were threatened by unknown “insurgents.”

“They came to our house in two cars, an Opel and a BMW, at night. Their faces were covered. They had weapons and said, ‘This is the last night you stay here. Starting tomorrow we will kill a son for every day you stay here,’” he said.

“I have two girls and three sons I want to protect,” said Mr. Tanish. “I prefer to lose everything I made in the last 30 years instead of getting harassed or have anything happen to my children.”

• Special correspondent Saleem contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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