Baghdad's Refugees Trapped in the Green Zone

Hundreds of Iraqi families have sought refuge in Baghdad's Green Zone in recent years. Now the authorities want them out -- but beyond the barricades, death awaits. A visit to a no-man's land in the Iraqi capital.

Entry into the Green Zone is strictly prohibited. But Iraqi families living inside the zone are being forced out and fear they will be killed for collaborating.

Entry into the Green Zone is strictly prohibited. But Iraqi families living inside the zone are being forced out and fear they will be killed for collaborating.

The paper that has protected the lives of the Al Jaaf family has been presented so often that its fold creases have torn. It instructs anyone wanting to evict the family from its home under the "14th of July Bridge" in Baghdad to contact the name given. The letter is signed by one Chip Bell, captain of the US Army in Iraq. Various stamps and a military letterhead lend the document additional weight. But even though the Al Jaafs continue to treat the letter like hidden treasure, it has lost its value. "So have our lives," says Mrs Al Jaaf.

The Al Jaafs are one of hundreds of Iraqi families that have sought refuge in Baghdad's so-called Green Zone in recent years. The international enclave, home to the headquarters of the Americans and their allies, is a city within a city; Nestled in a bend in the Tigris, the quarter belonged to the elite under Saddam Hussein. This is where the dicatator's palaces stood and stilll stand, off limits to ordinary mortals.

Entry to the zone remains restricted today. Behind its high walls, tens of thousands of soldiers, diplomats, foreign workers and Iraqis live in relative safety. For the Al Jaafs, it's become safety on demand. Since the Iraqi government took over management of the zone, it has been trying to drive Iraqi families away. "They want us to move back into the city," says the father of the Al Jaaf family. The 52-year-old is certain that he and his family wouldn't survive a single day on the outside. "Anyone who has worked for the Americans is considered a traitor and is as good as dead," he says.

Kidnapped because He Worked for the Americans

The Al Jaafs know what they're talking about. On Aug. 11, 2006, Isam, their eldest son, was kidnapped. He had been working as a security guard in the Green Zone, employed by Triple Canopy, one of the big American security companies in Iraq. Isam's family is certain that the 30-year-old was kidnapped because of his job. They can't bring themselves to say what is virtually certain: that he is dead.

It's uncomfortably cool in the kitchen where the Al Jaafs receive visitors. The living room is not presentable. Their daughter-in-law apologizes: they used to clear aside the mattresses where the parents sleep during the day, but now they can't be bothered. "We've left our friends and relatives behind. Nobody visits us anymore."

When the elder Al Jaafs talk about their lost son, they do so in evasive language, supressing the truth. "I pray that he's doing well," says the mother. "I long for the day when I can hug him again," says the father. "I hope your son returns soon, and in good health," says the visitor. It's almost embarrassing; everyone avoids eye contact. The mother stands up slugglishly to fix the gas flame. The father reaches for a brush to comb his moustache.

But the moment passes and Hamsi Al Jaaf continues to talk. The kidnappers only contacted the family once, a day after Isam's capture. "They said they were from the Mahdi army and they wanted $50,000 ransom," he says. The Mahdi army is one of the most feared Shiite militias in Iraq. The Al Jaafs are Sunni. "I simply didn't have that kind of money," says the father, who worked as a businessman in the Jordanian capital Amman prior to the war. Since then, they've heard nothing from their son.

No Turning Back

A week after the kidnapping, the family bought a paltry house in the Green Zone for $3,500. The women packed up a few things, the father closed the door to their old apartment in the Taalbiye district. Since then the Al Jaafs have been living on the banks of the Tigris.

Their new home lies in the shadow of the major bridge that connects the Green Zone with Baghdad. But the Al Jaafs can't cross it. They can't return to their old neighborhood, city and lives. It's the same for their neighbors.

Hamsi Al Jaaf and his daughter Isra who works for the American security company Triple Canopy.

Hamsi Al Jaaf and his daughter Isra who works for the American security company Triple Canopy.

All seven families living under the bridge share the same fate, says Mrs. Al Jaaf. All of them were taken under the wings of the Americans after a member of their families was killed for having collaborated. "For the family behind us, it was the daughter, for the family across the way, the son," recounts the 50-year-old woman.

People like the Al Jaafs are prisoners of a no-man's land whose demise has already begun.

But what happens when the American troops leave for good and leave their employees to their own devices: that's the least of the father's concerns. What's really worrying is that an employee of the Iraqi management of the Green Zone has been coming by almost daily. Next week he's going to bring Iraqi police, then things will get serious.

The Iraqi administration wants to clear out the former army barracks that the Al Jaafs and their neighbours have bought. Why, the father doesn't know. He suspects that other Iraqis are to move in: families with government connections. The carousel of elites spins on.

Two of the Al Jaaf daughters and one daughter-in-law are now working for the Americans, and feeding the family of 12. And more than that, their jobs could be tickets to the USA. Isra, one of the daughters, explains that if she can gather enough work experience with American companies, she might get an American visa one day. "Inshallah" or "With God's will." And once one of them makes it over, they might be able to bring over the remaining 11. Isra says "Inshallah" often.

Wearing baggy pants, a khaki T-shirt and a cap bearing the company logo, Isra is on her way to her afternoon shift. Triple Canopy pays her $3 an hour to frisk women at checkpoints. A good job, but a dangerous one. "Hundreds of Iraqi women who have business in the Green Zone see me every day," she says. They can all read her name on her badge, they can all pass it on to the men who "want to punish the collaborators."

She's not alone with her fears, according to one of the American military policemen who visits the Al Jaafs regularly while on patrol. The previous day, he and a few colleagues had been horsing around with their Iraqi translators. One of the Iraqis got a knee in the face; his cheek bone was clearly broken. But the military hospital in the Green Zone only takes Iraqis with potentially fatal wounds.

"He was in desperate need of a hospital but he refused to go into the Red Zone," says the military policeman. "He was in a total panic and kept saying: I'll be dead in five minute because I work for you guys." The solider concluded: "The medical provisioning for Iraqis in the Green Zone needs to be improved immediately."

"Red Zone" -- when the Al Jaafs speak of their hometown on the other side of the river, they use the American term. It seems strangely distant and maybe that's the point. "Red Zone" evokes no memories of what has been lost.

"We were so much happier before the war, and even after the Americans came," says a tired Mrs. Al Jaaf. Since her son was kidnapped, all happiness has left her. Her husband pulls out two pictures of their son. The resemblance is striking. "I know, I know," Hamsi Al Jaaf cries. "He was more than a son to me, he was my friend, my brother."

Now the facade falls and the tears flow down the father's cheeks. "I still hope that he's alive and will come back to us," he sobs. "Inshallah", murmurs his wife. "Inshallah," Hamsi replies. Faith in God is the last resort in a situation that seems hopeless.


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