Falloujans Get an Unsettling Look at Their City

Refugees eager to return change their minds after seeing the ruin. Will balloting be feasible?

By Edmund Sanders

Los Angeles Times

December 30, 2004

BAGHDAD — Yasser Abbas Atiya swore he'd sooner sleep on the streets of his beloved hometown of Fallouja than spend another night in the squalid Baghdad shelter where his family had been squatting.

Thirty minutes after he returned home this week, however, Atiya had seen enough. He left in disgust and had no plans to go back.

"I couldn't stand it," the grocer said. "I was born in that town. I know every inch of it. But when I got there, I didn't recognize it."

Lakes of sewage in the streets. The smell of corpses inside charred buildings. No water or electricity. Long waits and thorough searches by U.S. troops at checkpoints. Warnings to watch out for land mines and booby traps. Occasional gunfire between troops and insurgents.

"I thought, 'This is not my town,' " Atiya said Tuesday after going back to the abandoned Baghdad clinic his family shares with nearly 100 other displaced Falloujans. "How can I take my family to live there?"

The initial clamor by an estimated 200,000 refugees to return to the homes they had fled last month is being replaced by a bitter resignation that the city remains largely uninhabitable and unsafe. Hopes of quickly restoring normality to the restive Sunni Muslim city are fading, raising questions about whether Fallouja will be ready to participate in the Jan. 30 national election.

"We have no intention of going back," said Yasser Mowfauk Abbas, 20, a university student who was among the first residents allowed in to inspect their homes. "No one is staying."

U.S. and Iraqi officials say that they tried to warn Falloujans that it was too soon to return, but that they let them go last week after a groundswell of protest. Officials also face pressure to reopen the city before the election. The U.S.-led invasion of the city last month was prompted, in part, by a desire to clear the way for the vote.

"We told them that until now there are areas where debris and wreckage are still not removed," said Kasim Daoud, Iraq's interim security minister. "We also told them that there are some streets that contain land mines. But our dear people insisted that they must return back."

Nearly 15,000 residents have reentered Fallouja during the last week, military figures show. The returnees have been given the option of staying permanently or leaving by the end of the day.

Military officials said they were not keeping track of how many were opting to stay.

U.S. Marines say they are working to make the city livable again but are grappling with decades of neglect and decay, as well as the results of last month's bombardment.

More than 700 workers have been hired for the rebuilding effort. Aid centers distribute bottled water, food and blankets. On Wednesday, a hospital reopened.

Military leaders are mindful that drawing Falloujans back into Iraqi society and into the election would send a powerful signal that the country was headed in a positive direction.

"We are attacking reconstruction efforts with the same grit, sweat and determination used to eliminate the malicious threat posed by the terrorists and insurgents," said Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, deputy operations officer of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallouja. "We want to help the residents, so they will be able to live in peace and enjoy the privilege of voting in the upcoming elections."

But the effort to win the hearts and minds of the local population has fallen flat as soon as returning homeowners see the burned buildings, piles of rubble and heavy troop presence. The residents say voting is the last thing on their minds.

"What election?" Atiya, 35, asked. "I'm a refugee. How can a refugee take part in an election? Let me get back home and then I'll talk about elections."

After enduring three hours of military checkpoints and searches, Atiya and two brothers anxiously reentered the city Monday, uncertain what to expect.

U.S. troops handed them leaflets warning against a myriad of dangers and advising them that the U.S. military could not guarantee their safety. Don't drink the water, the leaflets warned, or eat food left behind.

Every resident is required to carry a small card outlining special new rules for the city. There's a 6 p.m. curfew. No weapons are allowed. Graffiti and public gatherings are illegal. Cars and visitors are banned.

Males between the ages of 15 and 55 must carry special identification cards. U.S. military officials have announced plans to use fingerprinting and retina scans to prevent insurgents from returning.

As Atiya and his brothers traveled through the city and saw the destruction, they braced for the worst. When he caught a glimpse of his roof, Atiya's first emotion was relief. The house was still there.

As they drew closer, however, Atiya and his brothers began to curse. A gaping hole in the two-story house appeared to have been caused by a tank, whose tracks were visible in the mud, he said. Most of the furniture was smashed. "Half my house was demolished," Atiya said.

In the kitchen, cabinets had been ripped from the walls, he said. Others were emptied of their contents, which lay in heaps on the floor.

"Every dish was broken, every cup, every plate, as if someone had just stood there breaking one dish after another," said Atiya's brother Raaid Abbas, 37. "Why?"

The brothers don't know who ransacked the house, but they blame American troops, who they say left muddy boot prints.

Military officials expressed sympathy with the plight of returning residents but said the blame should rest with militants who took control of the city and continued to hide among the population.

"Our forces never intentionally damage structures or homes," said Wilson, the deputy operations officer. "After all, we, in partnership with the [interim Iraqi government], will be at the forefront of assisting in the restoration and cleanup of Fallouja."

The brothers quickly determined that the house, where all three had been born, was uninhabitable. They had wanted to leave with some supplies, such as a kerosene heater, for use at the Baghdad shelter.

But in an effort to prevent theft and looting, U.S. troops prohibited residents from removing property from the city. The most the brothers could do was sneak out some extra clothing, which they wore as they left.

When the brothers returned to Baghdad and recounted their stories, other Falloujans shook their heads in amazement.

"After I heard what they said, I'm not willing to go back," said Latif Jasim, 45.

Atiya broke the bad news to his wife and four children. His youngest daughter, Noora, 4, had trouble understanding why she couldn't return home. "I want my dresses," she said, hiding shyly behind an older brother.

Atiya said the family had no choice but to stay in the makeshift shelter until conditions in Fallouja improved. "We are fed up with being here," he said. "We just want to go home."