Palestinians in Iraq, many of whom fled here as refugees more than half a century ago, are on the run again.
The civil war convulsing the country has raised worries about the fate of the approximately 20,000 Palestinians in Iraq, who are targeted by kidnappers and Shiite Muslim death squads because of what many Iraqis see as the group’s favored status under former President Saddam Hussein.
Community leaders say more than 60 Palestinians have been killed since early last year, and thousands have left the country. Many of the Palestinians who have stayed behind, mainly in Baghdad, have been chased from their homes and taken refuge in a largely Palestinian neighborhood here called Baladiyat.
“We are living in a state of fear,” said Lena Shaheen, 27, who fled the mainly Shiite Dora neighborhood with her family in September after gunmen announced through loudspeakers that Palestinian residents had 72 hours to get out.
Since then, some of the Palestinians’ apartments have been taken over by members of the militia tied to the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, residents said.
Palestinians, of course, have not been alone in suffering from the months of bloodletting, largely between armed bands of Shiite and Sunni Muslim Arabs. But international officials warn that Palestinians are in an especially precarious position because they are considered outsiders, even after decades of living in Iraq, and have difficulty gaining admission to other countries because they do not carry Iraqi passports.
Palestinians have also been targeted because they are predominantly Sunni and perceived as having received preferential treatment under Hussein, who sought to burnish his credentials as a pan-Arab leader by voicing support for the Palestinian quest for nationhood.
“They are a more vulnerable group than anybody else in Iraq,” said Gianni Magazzeni, who heads the United Nations human rights office here.
Palestinians deny they received special treatment from Hussein, including jobs and government payouts, or that they support the Sunni-led insurgency.
The U.N. refugee agency has appealed to the Iraqi government and U.S.-led forces to offer protection to Palestinians in Iraq, whose population has dropped from about 34,000 before the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein.
“They haven’t had much option, and we are extremely concerned over the plight of those remaining, and the inability to provide them with protection,” the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said last month.
Some Palestinians have been killed during mortar attacks against Baladiyat and in market bombings. Others were seized by gunmen and later found dead, showing signs of torture.
Uday Abu Hayja, a 32-year-old Palestinian, disappeared June 7 after going to work at a Baghdad flour mill in a Shiite neighborhood where he had been employed for two years. Abu Hayja and his Egyptian brother-in-law, who also worked at the mill, were taken aside by militiamen who said they needed to investigate the pair, family members said.
After more than a week, the family learned that the men had been killed on the day of their disappearance. It took days to find the bodies in the city’s overcrowded morgue. They bore gunshot wounds.
The victims’ relatives were too afraid to fetch the bodies for burial; some Shiite neighbors did so instead.
A month ago, the rest of the Abu Hayja family fled Baghdad, taking a bus to the Syrian border. One of Uday Abu Hayja’s sisters, Muna, was allowed to cross into Syria because she carried Egyptian travel documents from her marriage.
But the others, lacking passports, have been living for weeks in a no man’s land at the border in side-by-side tents, shivering at night as the temperatures drop. They and more than 300 other Palestinians stuck there have been tended by U.N. and other relief workers.
“We have suffered enough, quite enough,” another sister, Maha, said by telephone from the border encampment. “Every family here has its own story of suffering.”
She said the family’s plans would hinge on whether Syria took them in. In May, Syria let in nearly 300 Palestinians who had languished for months along Iraq’s border with Jordan. But it has not allowed any more Palestinians to enter.
Some Palestinians say they would be happy to be moved en masse from Iraq if another country would agree to take them. Many came to Iraq as small children at the time of the 1948 war that broke out as Israel was being established; others were born here but never granted full Iraqi citizenship.
International refugee workers say a bid to move Palestinians to the West Bank or Gaza Strip ran into opposition from Israel, and Arab nations have shown little interest in absorbing them.
A 57-year-old Palestinian attorney in Baladiyat who has promoted the rights of Palestinians said the neighborhood had taken on the air of a refugee camp because so many had flocked there for protection.
Residents are now afraid to venture out to other parts of Baghdad, and most would gladly move anywhere else they felt safe, said the lawyer, who asked not to be named out of fear he would be targeted.
“Even if they would put us in the desert, we would plant seeds and turn it green,” he said. “As long as they provide us with security.”