Life in Hell

Almost seven years later, the most catastrophic legacy of the Iraq war is shaping up to be the more than 2 million refugees who are locked in limbo on its borders with no hope of moving on. Here's what daily life is like in the monotonous depths of a humanitarian nightmare.

Here is the craziest non-sickening story I know about the Iraqi refugee crisis. It was told to me this October in Syria by an Iraqi architect I'll call Mazen -- a dapper, cosmopolitan man in his 60s who had worked for years with UNESCO, identifying and preserving world heritage sites throughout his country.

Early one morning in 2006, while Mazen and his wife were asleep in their home in Baghdad, a bomb -- not a rocket or a grenade or an IED, but a bomb, easily 4 feet long, with the letters "U.S.A." stenciled on its side -- tore through the wall of their house and landed on the bed between them, slamming its nose into the headboard. Miraculously, it did not explode. It did, however, wake the couple up in a hurry. They flew out of bed, whereupon the magnitude of their near miss became apparent. Mazen and his wife were entirely uninjured, except for a pair of matching burns on their right and left sides.

Awakened by the commotion, the couple's daughter fetched the family video camera and started recording. Later in Damascus, she showed me the footage: the jagged crater in the wall, the bed with the bomb on it, Mazen in a bathrobe with a shower of plaster in his hair. A cigarette-smoking police officer showed up, casually hauled the unexploded ordnance off the bed, and lugged it away. What happened next, I asked, waiting for Mazen to describe packing up his family and coming to Syria. They cleaned the house, he said, and covered the blast hole as best they could. That night, they went to sleep in the same bed.

This story illustrates a crucial fact about refugee crises: It takes impressively extreme conditions to create them. No matter how dangerous a war zone becomes, leaving is almost always the option of last resort. Nobody wants to bid farewell, possibly forever, to a familiar and beloved life. And yet, since the Iraq war began in March 2003, roughly 4.5 million people have fled. A little over half are IDPs, internally displaced people who were forced from their communities and sought haven elsewhere in Iraq. The rest are refugees, primarily in Syria (which hosts up to 1 million Iraqis), but also in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon. Taken together, they represent one of the largest forced migrations in the world. By way of comparison, the crisis in Darfur involves a similar number of IDPs, but only a tenth as many refugees. (Refugee statistics are notoriously imprecise and frequently contested. I've relied here on the most recent data from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or the UNHCR.)

The number of people fleeing Iraq peaked in 2006 and 2007, with the bombings of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra and the accompanying upsurge in sectarian violence. At the time, 6,000 refugees per day streamed over the border into Syria. That figure has dropped hugely since then, but new refugees still arrive. Exactly how many is unclear because those who leave Iraq head to many different countries and do not necessarily register with the UNHCR. Moreover, human smuggling is rampant, and many people make their escape illegally. Meanwhile, comparatively few refugees are returning to Iraq. Last year, 32,550 Iraqis (or less than 2 percent of refugees) went home, and some turned around and left again upon finding that conditions there remained unsafe. According to the UNHCR, there are no large-scale returns, and the situation in Iraq remains bad enough that the international community is holding to a policy of non-refoulement -- refraining from encouraging (let alone forcing) Iraqi refugees to return home.

Like Mazen and his family, most Iraqi refugees were not driven from their homes by war in any generalized sense (bombings, gunfights, rocket-propelled grenades). Instead, they fled Iraq because they were explicitly warned to leave or die. These warnings came in many forms (phone calls, text messages, bullet-filled envelopes, neatly typed memos on Mahdi Army letterhead) and in massive quantities. Mazen, for instance, stayed in Baghdad after his neighborhood became a maze of blast walls, after a nephew and nine friends were killed, after a bomb bisected his bed. But when he came home to find a noose hanging in his doorway with a picture of his daughter taped to it, he and his family were gone the next day.

This is a different kind of menace from what Iraqis endured in the past. True, for almost a quarter-century, Saddam Hussein oversaw a regime that systematically tortured and murdered up to a million citizens. But the key word is "systematically." As vicious as his regime was, there was a method to Saddam's madness. By contrast, the violence in postwar Iraq is not centralized or predictable, and therefore cannot be avoided. Take a hammer to safety glass, and you'll get a decent sense of just how fractured the country is and how many factions are vying, through violence, to control it.

For Iraqi civilians, the consequences of this hyperfragmentation of power have been dire. Consider, for instance, an incomplete list of reasons why you might receive one of the death threats described above. You might be from the Sunni minority (like Saddam), and therefore vulnerable to Shiite militias. Or you might be Shiite, and therefore targeted by radical Sunnis. Or you might be Shiite, but not Shiite enough. Or you might be a Shiite married to a Sunni -- common before the war, potentially fatal today. Or you might be Christian, Mandean, Yazidi, Druze, or a member of any other religious or ethnic minority. Unlike Sunnis and Shiites, such minorities do not control any territory and therefore have nowhere safe to go -- except out of Iraq altogether.

Other factors, too, can expose you to danger. Former higher-ups in Saddam's government and military are prime targets for Shiite militias. Career military men face an additional threat from Iran, which, ever since the regime fell, has supposedly been working its way down a hit list of high-ranking officers who served in the Iran-Iraq War. Likewise, heaven help you if you worked for the U.S. Army, U.S.contractors, U.S.-based NGOs or media outlets, the Coalition Provisional Authority, or the new Iraqi government. Of all the ways to earn a death threat in Iraq, a relationship with the United States is probably the quickest of them all. Even teaching English can get you targeted.

So, for that matter, can teaching in general. At least 430 Iraqi professors have been murdered, hundreds more have disappeared, and thousands have fled; more than 80 percent of Iraqi universities have been bombed, burned, or looted. Equally at risk are journalists, hundreds of whom have been killed since the war began. Other dangerous careers include working in a barbershop (devout Muslims are supposed to let their beards grow; cutting them is haram, or forbidden) and selling alcohol (also haram). Failing to cover your hair if you are a woman: haram. Dancing: haram. Being gay: haram-a-rama. (To date, nearly a thousand gay men and lesbians have been murdered because of their sexual orientation.)


If you fall into any of these categories -- or if your father, sister, son, cousin, or best friend does -- you are at risk in today's Iraq. The space for survival there has narrowed almost to nonexistence. There are simply too many warring forces to stay on the good side of them all.

Still, if it takes more than mayhem to create a refugee crisis, it takes more than a blizzard of death threats, too. Those threats must be credible -- backed by a willingness to perpetrate the promised violence. Here, too, Iraq has earned a perverse name for itself, thanks to the exceptional brutality visited on its people. In the United States, Americans hear about bombings and gunfights, but refugees and aidworkers talk as much or more about torture. This includes mutilating victims' genitals; removing their fingernails, teeth, and eyelids; drilling holes in their bodies with power tools; raping them, often with weapons or other foreign objects; subjecting them to mock executions; and forcing them to witness the violation and murder of other people, including family members.

And then there are the kidnappings. According to the independent research group Iraq Body Count, kidnapping-executions were the most common cause of civilian death during the first five years of the war. In other words, deliberate, one-person-at-a-time abductions and murders took more Iraqi lives than gunfire, suicide bombings, and car bombs. Many of these incidents targeted children, whose bodies were often deliberately desecrated and gruesomely displayed to send an unmistakable message to their parents: Leave. Zahra Mirghani, the UNHCR's head of community services in Syria, told me that she had never before encountered such extreme levels of sadism. "I've been working for refugee operations for 22 years," she told me -- including in Rwanda and Burundi. "But the stories I've come across in this operation, with this population -- frankly, I've never heard anything so horrible."

Levels of violence that match or surpass anything crisis workers have ever seen. The proliferation of armed militias until no sphere of safety remains. A highly individualized campaign of intimidation. Taken together, these factors teach us a lot about the Iraqi refugee crisis. They show us how it happened -- why millions of people were forced into forsaking their homes. They show us why it is impossible, at least for now, for these refugees to return. And they begin to suggest, too, the magnitude of the needs they bring with them over the border.


At the southwestern edge of Damascus, where the city crumbles into desert, a half-built housing complex looks out onto barren hills and distant military installations. The Golan Heights is just over the hills; central Damascus is an hour's bus ride away. For two Iraqi artists whom I'll call Fata and Mahir, and for their two young daughters, this is home. But it is also a vivid visual metaphor for the plight of all Iraqi refugees -- who live, almost without exception, on the literal and figurative margins of the major cities of the Middle East.

This is one of the most distinctive features of the Iraqi diaspora: It is the largest urban refugee crisis in history. The UNHCR's protocols were developed primarily for refugee camps, and it has had to adapt to serving a population that is scattered throughout cities. The cities themselves have had to adapt as well. Their already overburdened social services -- from schools and immigration offices to health clinics and sewage systems -- are staggering under a massive influx of arrivals. Meanwhile, other desperately needed services simply don't exist, such as mental health care (recall that all refugees are survivors of war, and many of torture) and domestic-violence protections. (Family violence has risen dramatically among refugees, spurred by factors ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to the psychological stress of unemployment.)

At the same time, the urban nature of the crisis has placed a unique strain on the refugees themselves. Refugee camps leave a lot to be desired, but they do have the advantage of consolidating both assistance and community. David Brigham, the country director for Mercy Corps in Jordan, came to that job from a stint in Sudan. "Every problem in the world is insignificant compared to these massive human rights issues in Africa," he said. But, he continued, "On an individual level, the people in the camps in Darfur are a lot happier than the people here. They didn't fall as far, and they still have their communities. They aren't so isolated.... In one day in Darfur you'll see a lot more smiling faces than I've seen here in two years."


On the outskirts of Damascus, Fata and her family have few reasons to smile. Granted, they are safe, and that is saying a lot. Granted, too, their host country has been, by any measure, generous. Fata's older daughter, who is 6, just began school, thanks to Syria's pledge to open its public education and health-care system toIraqis. The country has also stood by its promise not to send refugees home while conditions in Iraq remain unsafe. (Iraqis who commit crimes do risk deportation -- a particular problem for the many girls and women who have been forced by economic necessity into prostitution.)

Still, their lives are as barren as the landscape. "I hold my children and turn everywhere and ask, 'Where should I go'?" Fata said. "If someone tells you, 'This is the road to a job, to a home, to your dreams,' OK: You walk. But what do you do if there is no road?" She and her family can't go back to Iraq, where insurgents bombed her husband's gallery and threatened to kill them both. They can't go to a new country because they have been denied resettlement. And they can't build a future for themselves in Syria because they cannot legally work and have no possible path to citizenship.

Without employment, Fata, like most refugees, is slowly sliding into destitution. For the Iraqi middle class, an estimated 40 percent of which is thought to have fled, this descent into poverty is psychologically as well as financially devastating. "I fell in love with my husband because we had so many shared dreams," Fatatold me. "We thought: We'll open a gallery together. We'll make a home for our kids. A lot of it was simple stuff. We'll go on such and such a trip when the girls are older. We'll paint this room that color." In Damascus, she cried when she told me that none of their dreams have come true. Instead, like so many refugees, they are living in crowded quarters in rented rooms in poor parts of town, and surviving -- to Fata's shame and anger -- off U.N. handouts.

If Iraqi adults are suffering under these conditions, their children are faring worse. Many of them missed out on years of education in Iraq, where the war made going to and from school impossible. As refugees, they resume their education only to find themselves thrown into the middle of an entirely unfamiliar (and in many cases French-based) curriculum. Rather than face the humiliation of studying with far younger students, many drop out. Others quit in order to work. In southern Lebanon, I met a family of five that survives off the oldest son's janitorial job. He works 40 hours per week and earns $17. He is 13 years old. It is no more legal for him to hold a job than it is for his parents, but minors are far less likely to be arrested and deported. As a consequence, child labor is rampant in the refugee population. And because their work is illegal, children are highly vulnerable to exploitation in every form, from on-the-job beatings to withholding promised wages.

All this is to say nothing of the massive psychological burden borne by Iraqi kids. I was struck by how Fata's daughters played on the floor beside us as she described the graphic murder of a family friend. When I asked if she would prefer to speak in private, she declined -- as did every other parent I spoke with on similar occasions. Their kids, they all pointed out, had already lived through it.


What do you do if you can't work and can't go to school, if you have left behind your country, your community, and your career, to say nothing of your dead? Sadly, the answer is: almost nothing. Life as an Iraqi refugee is one of emptiness bordering on erasure."Sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off if I'd died in Iraq," Fata told me. "And sometimes I think I did."

This was a refrain I heard over and over from refugees. Unable to live a full life in exile, most are reduced to hoping for resettlement, for the chance of starting anew in Sweden, Australia, the United States. They circulate every shard of information about life abroad (never mind that much of it is daunting these days, given the global financial crisis and the increasingly difficult conditions for resettled refugees, especially in the United States). They leave their cell phones on at top volume day and night, waiting for the call from the UNHCR that will change everything.

All this is a painful spectacle because, for most of them, resettlement will never be a reality. Resettled people account for a tiny fraction of the overall refugee population, somewhere around 3 percent. (The United States has taken in roughly 30,000 Iraqis since the war began; another 25,000 or so have gone to Europe, Oceania, or elsewhere.) With resettlement such a restricted option, the only viable solution for the vast majority of refugees is a stable Iraq. But that, as the refugees know better than anyone, is not likely to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, the people of Iraq, including close to half of what was once its secular, educated middle class, stay home and watch TV for up to 16 hours a day. They sweep factories and sell their bodies. They sleep the attenuated nights of the chronically depressed. They represent, as clearly as anything else, the failures of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. They already constitute a humanitarian crisis, and many fear that they will soon constitute a security crisis as well.

This is hardly a foregone conclusion. On the contrary, almost every Iraqi I met expressed a graceful ability to separate the American people from its government, not to mention an overwhelming desire never to experience violence again. But it's easy to see where the fear of dangerous radicalization comes from. With 2 million people exposed to violence, exiled from their homes, cut off from their communities, cut short in their educations, and consigned to poverty, you don't have to be particularly imaginative -- or particularly paranoid -- to worry about the results.

Nor do we need to look far from the current crisis to speculate about what will happen if we let it continue to fester. In 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel caused some 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes. More than 60 years later, the failure to peaceably resolve that refugee crisis has led to the single most intractable, misery-inducing, and dangerous problem facing the Middle East, if not the world. We owe it to all of us not to let that happen again.



The Many Ants of Iceland

With their country's economy in tatters from the financial crisis, Icelanders are turning to some strange methods for reforming their government.

I'm standing in a huge room that looks more like a wedding reception hall than a national summit chamber, with a stage, a buffet table, and 1,500 Icelanders sitting at round tables talking excitedly. We've been serenaded by a girls choir and fed lamb soup. Attendees refer to themselves as "ants," and our name tags only feature our first names. Surreal as the event may seem, many Icelanders are convinced it's the only way to get their troubled economy back on track. In this tiny, sheltered island nation, as political crises mount, solutions to economic distress are coming from some unexpected directions.

About a year ago, days after the collapse of Iceland's three largest banks bankrupted the country, Icelanders held a peaceful protest calling for the removal of the then chairman of the board of governors of Iceland's central bank, David Oddsson. By early 2009, as general protests increased in size and sometimes turned violent, the country's government was ousted.

The political situation has now stabilized, but Icelanders remain skeptical about the current government and the economy hasn't rebounded. Unemployment tops 8 percent, an alarmingly high figure in a country of 300,000 citizens where the rate prior to the crash hovered around 1 percent.

Meanwhile, the country is struggling to pay back the debt it incurred during last year's bank failures. On Dec. 30, Iceland's parliament narrowly approved a bill to reimburse Britain and the Netherlands more than $5 billion for the losses those countries' investors took during Iceland's crash. But the bill is hugely unpopular because of the burden it places on taxpayers, who resent having to pay for the mistakes of private financial firms supervised by other country's regulators. President Olafur Grimsson vetoed it on Jan. 5, throwing the government into turmoil once again. Grimsson has argued that the bill should be subject to a national referendum, but supporters of the legislation fear that if the bill fails, it would endanger the $10 billion IMF aid package promised to Iceland after the bank failures, as well as Iceland's chances of joining the European Union.

In reaction to these crises, a sort of grassroots economics movement has risen up in Reykjavik, where citizens are trying to provide solutions for and by the people. One of the organizations leading the pack is House of Ideas, a loosely defined office-space-cum-think-tank that is the brainchild of Gudjon Gudjonsson, a telecom industry entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship at Reykjavik University. Shortly after the crash, House of Ideas, under the sponsorship of Reykjavik University and the Iceland Academy of the Arts, began providing creative entrepreneurs rent-free space to foster business ideas.

No walls separate companies, and most work in a central room with an indoor park containing a tire swing and life-size male doll, which slumps on a bench, apparently to reinforce the park setting. There's a room filled with randomly scattered, mismatched couches and a coffee shop with a ping-pong table. Words from brainstorming sessions adorn the walls. One company uses brain waves to play a game; another is inventing a more advanced kind of television set.

The "National Assembly," where I found myself eating lamb soup and listening to the children's choir, came out of the intellectual crucible of the Ministry of Ideas, which is located in the House of Ideas. This experiment in collective decision-making brought together 1,500 Icelanders, the majority of whom were selected randomly from Iceland's National Registry, to brainstorm ways to rebuild the country's economy and its values. In any other country this might be fairly considered completely insane; in Iceland, where the participants made up a respectable 0.5 percent of the country's population, there was a certain logic to it. In July, a group of volunteers based out of the House of Ideas joined forces with other grassroots organizations to begin developing the National Assembly's manifesto.

Gudjonsson explains his initiative as an attempt to develop a business plan for Iceland. "The country could behave like a business in terms of sharing common values and a common vision," he said. "Iceland's population is the size of General Electric. The opportunity Iceland has is to model a new way of democracy." He wants Icelanders to become part of the solution, rather than passively remaining at the mercy of the financial institutions that destroyed the country's economy.

Gudjonsson sent me the National Assembly's manifesto, which designates the assembly's volunteers as "The Anthill" and describes its mission as pursuing a "unique flavor of crowd-sourced democracy." The National Assembly's goal, the manifesto states, is to "harness the collective wisdom and consciousness of the Icelandic public, which is hidden to each individual in isolation."

One of the founding National Assembly "ants" told me that the "Anthill" moniker was inspired by ants' intuitive perception of threats and their ability to move their society to safety; each ant is an equally important part of the whole. Original "ants" in the National Assembly Anthill include Iceland's minister of environment and the singer Björk, who helped formulate the idea of the National Assembly but did not, unfortunately, attend.

The ants finally came together on Nov. 14, when 1,200 random Icelanders and 300 influential Icelandic leaders, including former and current political figures, gathered at Reykjavik's sporting arena, Laugardalsholl.

Laugardalsholl's main hall was decked out with video screens and balloons everywhere. Volunteer ant Sigga Stina, media ant Marianna, and data logistics ant Thorgics brief me, as the participants start to gather at their tables: Seven discussion rounds enable participants to confer on categories vital to national health. Individuals write down words through each round, and each table reaches a consensus on one phrase during every round. The data for the entire assembly will then be tabulated and appear both on a website, which is broadcasting live video of the proceedings, and as word clouds shared on the video screens at the National Assembly in real time. The most popular responses appear as the largest words within the cloud.

By 10 a.m., 1,500 Icelanders -- young and old, male and female -- are sitting at their assigned tables. The mayor of Reykjavik, Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, sits at one table, the leader of the fallen Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson Jr., at another. Finance Minister Steingrimur J. Sigfusson also participates. They are working with common Icelanders, from a pink-haired 18-year-old to a 100-year-old fisherman. During rounds, the room is subdued as people focus on the discussions. "This is hard work, but important work," says one ant during a break between rounds.

By lunchtime the first word cloud forms on the video screens: Heidarleiki, or honesty and integrity, is number one. The room erupts in applause. Equal rights, respect, and justice are tied for second. Love, responsibility, freedom, sustainability, democracy, family, equality, and trust follow. Words such as "transparency" and "education" are also popular.

Between rounds, there are meals and entertainment. Marianna wipes away tears. "This is the future of Iceland," announces a facilitator ant.

At the end of the day, participants fill out suggestion cards on ways to improve Iceland's future, as an Icelandic singer performs in the background. They then stuff the cards into boxes by the stage. We eat our soup. Smiles abound. A man named Helgi shares what he has written: He wants a variety of jobs available for everyone and programs to teach young people how to form a better society.

During the next phase, laid out by the National Assembly's manifesto, the Anthill will implement an action plan for the year ahead. Ten days later, Iceland Review, an English-language magazine in Reykjavik, and the Icelandic daily Morgunbladid reported the formation of a partnership between the Anthill and a government-appointed strategic-planning task force to "incorporate the conclusions of the National Assembly into the task force's plans." The results of the National Assembly -- simple words that define a nation's values and economic needs -- may seem like rhetoric, and after the corruption and collusion within the government and its former banks, it's no surprise that words such as "honesty" and "integrity" would receive consensus among Icelanders. Still, no matter the outcome of these developments, Iceland's ants have responded to the daunting challenges they face by starting to form a solution that can truly bear the stamp: "Made in Iceland."

Althea Legaspi