Connect to share and comment

Iraqis ponder returning home

Iraqis displaced by war are key to the country's future, yet many are reluctant to resettle there.

U.S. Army Capt. John Turner, commander of Alpha Company, 2-8 Field Artillery battalion speaks with residents of Bey'a village in the Diyala Province in front of the ruins of their homes. After residents of Bey'a fled violence in 2006, insurgents destroyed 22 of the village's 35 homes. Rebuilding the town is a major challenge for those trying to return to their home. (Tom Peter/GlobalPost)

BEY'A, Iraq — Almost three years after Sheikh Gazi Hussein Abdullah and the residents of Bey’a fled their village about 30 miles north of Baghdad, they got a call from the Iraqi military saying they’d conducted a major operation in the area and that it was safe to return.

Abdullah said that although security had improved, “We came back here in tears because we found that all of our houses had been completely destroyed.”

Insurgents leveled 22 of the village’s 35 homes and the rest were severely damaged. Today, four months later, those trying to resettle Bey’a are crowded into tents and the handful of houses still standing until they can rebuild.

As fighting dies down in Iraq, displaced people are beginning to trickle back to their homes. Iraqi and U.S. officials say the return of refugees is critical to maintaining security gains, but to attract more returnees they must prove that they can maintain and continue to improve stability. They must also address a number of challenges, such as rebuilding destroyed homes and infrastructure to turn the trickle into a steady flow.

“The future of Iraq depends on sustaining a high level of security improvement and strengthening infrastructure and/or basic services,” Maha Sidky, reporting officer for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Iraq, wrote in an email. “These will be the reasons that could encourage massive return which will eventually lead to future stability.”

Despite recent security improvements, there are an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees outside the country and another 1.7 million displaced people within Iraq.

“A settled population in a counterinsurgency fight like the one we’re in has a vested interest in protecting that area, in protecting their welfare and the welfare of their kids and families and the functioning of the infrastructure,” said U.S. Army Maj. Steve Marr, operations officer for the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, stressing the importance of resettling returnees.

Many Iraqi and American military officials are newly optimistic that they can create an environment conducive to bringing refugees back. Already, many displaced people who’ve returned say that the Iraqi security forces are stronger and more reliable than when they fled, a fact that was key in their decision to return.