Cover Story

Cities of refuge

"Cities of refuge" Continued...

Issue: "Safe haven," Sept. 15, 2007

Proposals to totally withdraw are "a child's game of closing your eyes and pretending, 'If I don't see you, then you don't see me,'" said Schute. He concedes the surge "is something that should have happened four years ago," but said "simply pulling out is not a solution. After everything we have invested here, especially the blood of our soldiers, we have to make it worth it."

Iraqis know better than anyone not to expect a magic formula or an easy solution to the current level of violence. Vivian Zadik keeps on her cell phone a video of the bombing outside her Baghdad apartment that sent her and her family to the north earlier this year.

The explosion sent a wall of glass into her living room. It split the steel supports of her Baghdad apartment building: The video shows their jagged beams hanging over a sofa, and debris covering the floor. The video also shows her mother bleeding from the right side of her face, her nephew entering the room with his foot gashed and bleeding, and hazmat trucks and rescue vehicles arriving.

Zadik does not believe anyone was killed in the explosion but said many pedestrians were injured, some very badly. She could not hear anything at first-even though the explosion was three floors down and across the street-and her mother has scars from her face wounds. Today, all 11 members of Zadik's extended family (ages 4 to 64) live in a two-bedroom apartment near Erbil with concrete floors and crude plumbing. It's in Ain Kawa, a historically Christian suburb of Erbil that has doubled in size in the last 18 months.

Zadik and her family are Armenian, with long roots in Baghdad, but they now attend an evangelical church in Erbil started by Berta Baba, himself a displaced pastor from Baghdad. The church has 10 displaced families with more coming each week. They include not only Assyrians like Baba but Armenians like Zadik, Chaldean Catholics, and at least one family who converted from Islam. They meet in Baba's home. His daughter plays a borrowed electric keyboard and a pastor forced to leave Basra plays the guitar.

Baba and his family emigrated north a year ago "because terrorists are destroying our neighborhood." His oldest daughter was in school when a car bomb went off outside her classroom. Glass landed in her lap but did not injure her. Soon after, as Baba drove his wife and two daughters home through the city, they were the first to reach an intersection where fighting broke out between insurgents wearing black masks and the military.

"We could not go anywhere and we just prayed," said Baba. A stray bullet hit the driver behind them and killed him. Baba decided he had to get out of the area and sped through the intersection and the fighting to a nearby checkpoint. He said his wife could not hear for three days after the incident, and the couple decided then to leave.

In the north they can walk streets freely, stay out late, send their teenage daughters out to see friends, and shop in new stores stocked with clothing and appliances from Turkey. They and other religious minorities have the freedom to meet and worship, they say.

But the living is not easy. The demand for housing has led to high prices. Apartment rentals of any size in Erbil start at $400 per month. Infrastructure is in better shape in the north than most of the rest of the country, yet four years of war have hurt: In summer electric power is consistently on for only 6-8 hours a night. Everyone is connected also to generator systems run by cooperatives, which rotate power during the day, but air conditioning won't run off the generators, and total burnouts are normal.

Sewer systems also are beyond capacity. Green-blue sewage runs in a steady stream down the streets of Erbil and other cities, even where new construction and luxury homes for Baghdad's wealthy transplants are spreading. Drinking water and refrigeration problems due to power shortages pose serious health risks. Two weeks ago an outbreak of cholera in Sulaymania, a city southeast of Erbil, resulted in more than 3,000 cases within three days.

Kurds also know that a stable security situation can change. They have watched Kirkuk, formerly a largely Kurdish city but outside the current Kurdish administration, dissolve in violence. A captured assassin in Kirkuk last month confessed that he was one of 44 killers trained in Istanbul to carry out attacks in the north. And an August attack on a Yezedi village in the north killed 500-the largest single bombing incident in Iraq this year.

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