IRAQ REFUGEE CRISIS - A diary from Damascus.

I'm in Damascus for a week with photographer Angie Catlin to interview Iraqi refugees for a project we're working on in conjunction with the Scottish Refugee Council. Alas, hiccups from the outset. When we arrived at the airport last night – finally getting though immigration after about an hour of questioning -  we discover that the fixer we'd hired for the duration of our stay is nowhere to be seen. Not good.

Anyway, we stood about for an hour or so in arrivals dialling and redialling her mobile number but nowt, so panic started to set in.  And to make matters worse we discover that the hotel we're booked into is around 25 miles from Damascus, which means we'll be forking out for taxis back and forward to the city for the next seven days.

When we eventually arrive at the hotel, a couple of hours later rather bedraggled, we find that it's in a deserted holiday resort in the middle of bloody nowhere. I think I'll book the accommodation myself next time.

Today, we discovered that Ahlam, our fixer, had suffered a minor heart attack yesterday, the reason why she was unable to meet us. Despite her healthscare, Ahlam was kind enough to ask another fixer to contact us, so we are now under the guidance of Rula, who says she has extensive experience of working with journalists. Angie and I were certainly more relaxed after meeting Rula because we would have endured major problems trying to work without a guide as neither of us speak good Arabic.

After coffee, introductions and discussing our plans for the trip, we hail one of Damascus's ubiquitious yellow taxis that throng the city's roads like manic wasps, weaving, peeping and bumping along the most chaotic road network I think I've ever seen. Driving, or being a passenger, is certainly an experience in this intriguing city.

Our interview today is with Fouad Yousef and his family, who left the Dora area of Baghdad eight  months ago to escape the violence of the city. Fouad, 48, and his wife, Zeikra, both sob, as he explains how his 16-year-old son, Faroq, was shot dead last year by Islamic Jihad. Faroq was shot in the head simply because he was a Shiah Muslim living in a Sunni area.

"We were threatened three times by these people and told to leave, but we had lived there all our lives, so where do we go?" Fouad says.

Faroq was kidnapped along with a friend as they played in the street on 21st March, 2007. The next day Fouad received a phone call from Islamic Jihad accusing him of being a leader with a Shiah militia.

"I told them this wasn't true and pleaded that they took me instead of my son," Fouad says.

The man replied that Faroq would be killed then hung up. The next day he called again to tell the family where Faroq's body had been dumped.

Fouad has had other relatives murdered, including two cousins who had their heads cut off after being captured by criminals as they fled Baghdad to Syria.

This mindless, abhorrent violence in the name of religion beggars belief and this family's story is only one tale among some five million, the UNHCR's estimation on the number of Iraqis displaced by war.

Life in Damascus is hard, and gets tougher by the day for the refugees. Fouad's life's savings are gone and his family survive on money being sent from a sister who fled the war to London.

 Who does Fouad blame for the violence?

 "Al Qaeda and the militias who've come to fight the US - is this Jihad? Is it jihad to kill children?," Foaud says.

I ask about US claims that Baghdad has become safer and if it would be safe for the family to return to their home?

"For us it's impossible. In some areas, the richer areas, we hear that it is safer, but  most people are still too afraid to return," Fouad says.

 

 

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