BAGHDAD — “We only want a normal life,” says Um Qasim, sitting in a bombed out building in Baghdad. She and others around have been saying that for years.
Um Qasim lives with 13 family members in a brick shanty on the edge of a former military intelligence building in the Mansoor district of Baghdad.
Five of her children are girls. Homelessness is not easy for anyone, but it is particularly challenging for women and girls.
“Me and my girls have to be extra careful living this way,” Um Qasim told IPS. “We are tired of always being afraid, because any day, any time, strange men walk through our area, and there is no protection for us. Each day brings a new threat to us, and all the women here.”
She rarely leaves her area, she says. Nor do her girls, for fear of being kidnapped or raped.
“I don’t like being afraid all the time,” says one of Um Qasim’s daughters. “But my mother tells us to always be careful, and I can see her fear, so it scares me.”
The compound, which was the headquarters of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s son Qusay Hussein, was heavily damaged by U.S. air strikes during the invasion in March 2003. Buildings like this became shelters for thousands displaced then and later.
In all 135 families, about 750 people, live in this compound.
“It is living in misery,” says Um Qasim. Home is a bare concrete room shared by eight of her family members. “The government gives us 50 litres of heating and cooking oil each month, but we run out of it very soon, and then we have to try to find money to buy more so we can cook and try to stay warm.”
The bombed building is in a state of total disrepair. Concrete blocks hang precariously from metal bars, many ceilings are partially collapsed, and all of the outer walls are gone.
There is no water, no electricity, no sewage, and no garbage disposal. Piles of garbage, diapers, decaying food scraps and human excrement are scattered around the area.
“We have no water, no money, and no work,” says Ahmed Hussein, 15. “How can a human live in this misery? We are so tired.”
Opportunities to find a way out are few. Unemployment across Iraq is high, between 40-65 percent. And the price of oil, the source of 90 percent of government revenue, has fallen. The government has not much to give out.
Last month the government decided to evict all people who have been squatting in government buildings or on government land since the invasion. Local NGOs estimate that more than 250,000 squatters live on the streets or in such shelters all over Baghdad.
“The Iraqi Cabinet has decided to evict all squatters in or on government property – land, houses, residential buildings or offices. They will be given financial help to find alternative places to live,” said a government statement Jan. 4.
The government gave squatters 60 days from Jan. 1 to leave or face legal action, but later decided to give them more time. No one knows when the next order might come.
“We want help from the Iraqi government,” says Nasir Fadlawi, 48, unofficial manager of Qasim’s compound. “I am asking the government to care for us, as we are the sons and daughters of Iraq. We would not be here if they would help us.”
Fadlawi says most people in the area are either economic refugees, or those displaced from their homes during the sectarian violence that racked Baghdad in 2006. “The Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army often come here and threaten us,” he said. “But we have a right to live.”
Fadlawi says it is difficult to find work or alternative places to live in also because of the corruption. The last time he applied for a job he was asked for 700 dollars. “Where am I going to get that money when I don’t have a job to begin with.”
The government may have to delay plans to build new housing. The Ministry of Displacement and Migration is reported to have postponed some new housing projects until 2010.
“We asked for 40 billion Iraqi dinars (34.2 million dollars) for the ministry’s investment budget but we were told that only 8 billion (6.85 million dollars) could be allocated,” said Ali Shaalan, head of the Ministry’s planning directorate in a statement Jan. 4. “This could prevent us from achieving our goals for this year.”
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) released a report Jan. 1 that estimated there are 1.6 million internally displaced persons in Iraq. The report said that almost two-thirds, just over a million, live in Baghdad, more than half of them women or girls. The report pointed out that displaced women are more prone to rape and other forms of sexual violence.