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.)