BAGHDAD — Walking through the Saudi Arabian desert, the six Iraqis finally reached the border. An official welcoming committee from the southern Iraqi city of Samawah waited on the other side.
But the homecoming celebrations were short.
After conferring briefly with an Iraqi army colonel, five of the six men turned around and headed back into Saudi Arabia, having decided that living in a refugee camp there was more attractive than resettling in Iraq.
For two decades, war, persecution and poverty resulted in millions of Iraqis moving abroad. Living among strangers, in unfamiliar surroundings, many of them had longed for their place of birth.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 250,000 emigres decided to return from refugee camps in neighboring countries and comfortable homes farther away.
But for many, coming back to rebuild Iraq turned out to be even harder than leaving.
"It's not my country anymore," said Ziat Khadir, who fled to the United Arab Emirates in 2002 to avoid the Iraqi army draft. Returning this year, he found that, in three short years, his homeland, his countrymen and even his family had changed. "I feel like a stranger coming back. Everything is upside down."
Khadir, who has returned to the Emirates, is one of many Iraqis who have left the country for the second time, further eroding civil society and undermining rebuilding efforts.
One organization, Iraqis Rebuilding Iraq, was flooded with applications when it announced a reconstruction program offering qualified Iraqi emigres work as civil servants. But when officials explained that the job came without bodyguards, many candidates withdrew their applications.
The Ministry of Immigration and Displacement says the Iraqi government does not keep track of how many have left the country since 2003. But an official acknowledged that the government was aware of the steady stream and was trying to stem the exodus by offering jobs, money or plots of land to persuade returnees to stay.
It's a tough sell.
"The situation is even worse than I had imagined," Khadir said. "It's a war zone."
While working as a barber in the Emirates, Khadir longed for peaceful strolls along the Tigris River. He dreamed of browsing his favorite market on Rasheed Street in central Baghdad. Upon his return to the Iraqi capital this year, he found a city scarred with gunfire, barbed wire and concrete barriers. His brother, a taxi driver, had disappeared, last seen in a volatile Baghdad neighborhood. The market had been closed, and American tanks rumbled through the trash-strewn streets.
"Since I came back, I've been living in a state of horror. You see your country being destroyed right in front of your eyes," said Khadir, who has persuaded his family to join him in the Emirates.
"My country cannot offer me anything right now," he said. "It's been wounded."
At the outset of the war, an estimated 4 million Iraqis lived abroad, at least 150,000 of them in the United States. Some were economic emigres, others asylum seekers, fleeing persecution by Saddam Hussein's government. At least 253,000 returned to Iraq from various countries after the toppling of Hussein, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Tamara Daghastani, an Iraqi then living in Jordan, was among those who followed on the heels of the U.S.-led forces that swiftly ousted Hussein 2 1/2 years ago.
"The elation as we crossed the border was indescribable," said Daghastani, 59. For years, other Iraqis had gushed about the beauty of the Iraqi palm trees.
"They're nuts," she recalled thinking. "What's so great about a palm tree?"
Approaching Baghdad, however, "I could have kissed and hugged those palm trees," she said. "It was the greatest feeling."
Born to a prominent family close to the monarchy, Daghastani was 12 years old in 1958 when revolutionaries slaughtered the royal family.
"That was the beginning of the end," said Daghastani, who left for Jordan in 1974.
In the three decades she spent in Britain and Jordan, she dreamed of the boatmen on the Tigris, singing as they returned at dusk, the light of their lanterns reflecting on the river. She imagined falling asleep on a Baghdad rooftop, with a carpet of stars above and the sound of croaking frogs, "like a lullaby."
But the country she left was not the country she found.
"I didn't expect to come back and find nirvana," she said.
Still, she was shocked by what she saw. In the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City, "children were drinking from the sewage," she said.
As the violence worsened, Daghastani became dismayed by the behavior of American troops.
"The same forces who were greeted with open arms, by their own mistakes lost it all," said Daghastani, who remained in Baghdad for more than two years trying to build a women's clinic and an orphanage.
"Young officers were behaving like viceroys," she said. "It was unbelievable how they turned love into hate. But they didn't listen. They created enemies where none existed."