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CONFLICT IN IRAQ: IRAQI FORCES NOT YET INDEPENDENT;
BITTER HOMECOMING : DISPATCH FROM BAGHDAD

He can go home again -- but it feels empty

September 01, 2008|Said Rifai | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — My family's home was taken over by insurgents 19 months ago. On Sunday, we got it back.

Until a couple of months ago, the people who had settled into my parents' house were strangers. They were a Sunni Arab family displaced from a predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood during Baghdad's sectarian conflict. Like a lot of Iraqis, they went to somewhere friendly to their sect and moved into a vacant house. In this case, it was our home, in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Adel.

Then, the Iraqi government issued an ultimatum ordering squatters in Adel to leave by Sept. 2. Luay Mahmoud, the man living in my home with his family, called, asking whether I could talk to security officials so they would let him leave safely with his belongings.

I agreed.

My good friend Caesar Ahmed offered to come with me Sunday to my old neighborhood. The drive there was uneventful. There was no excitement on my part. It was as if the last 19 months and the ordeal of losing a house, first to gunmen and then to squatters, had never happened.

The neighborhood hadn't changed much, with the exception of Iraqi soldiers and their armored vehicles manning every corner in place of the Sunni fighters and other gunmen who once controlled the area.

We reached the gate of the stucco duplex just before 11 a.m.

"It looks fine, huh?" Caesar said as we stood there.

"Looks fine from the outside. God knows how it looks from within," I answered.

A small man in his late 20s or early 30s approached from the other side of the gate. We cordially greeted each other.

Luay Mahmoud, who had lived there about a year, was soft-spoken and seemed decent. I had feared I would lose my temper when meeting him, but it was as if my emotions were depleted. I didn't feel anything. I wondered whether Mahmoud and his family weren't victims, just like me and my family.

Most of my mixed Sunni-Shiite family had left Iraq in the fall of 2006 because of the violence. I'd stayed behind and kept watch on the house until January 2007, when Sunni insurgents took over the neighborhood and its homes. Over time, the insurgents had been driven out, and squatters had moved in.

Inside, the heavy furniture was still there, but everything else was gone: the chinaware, crystal, silver, family pictures, Persian rugs and God knows what else.

Mahmoud insisted that this was how it was when he got here. We found some of the doors upstairs broken down and pocked with bullet holes.

I had converted a room on the first floor into a storage area, stacked with boxes of household goods and personal effects of my brothers and sister. The room was trashed, the boxes scattered and torn.

"We'll come some other day and sort through this stuff," Caesar said.

We made our way to the local Iraqi army headquarters so I could register my name as the homeowner and Mahmoud could get out with his meager belongings. The place was filled with people wanting to leave and their returning counterparts. We waited two hours. Caesar continuously bugged the guard at the door to let us in.

People came and went, most acting as if there was no significance in what was happening. Two women bickered. Apparently they had switched houses and now were returning to their own residences, but they couldn't agree on when this should happen.

Just as we were losing hope, we got in to see an officer called Maj. Haytham.

Caesar explained that I had come to reclaim my house and asked whether Haytham would sign off on Mahmoud and his family leaving. We showed him documents proving my ownership.

Haytham signed a form giving Mahmoud the right to take his things and go. With that official blessing, the house was ours again. It didn't take more than five minutes.

"You contact me if anyone gives you a hard time," Haytham told me.

Caesar and I said our goodbyes to Mahmoud, who promised to be out within two days.

I was overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness. Had I achieved anything? I had got my house back, but it had been plundered. But just getting it back should be a good thing, right? I tried to convince myself.

Back at The Times' Baghdad office, my colleagues asked how it had gone. Our office manager noticed that I didn't seem very happy. I told him I didn't really care anymore. I described how all the furniture was there but the valuables were gone. Then I went on a rant.

"I will never forgive anyone who supported and still supports this war," I said. "My whole family's legacy is gone. Other people have lost so much more, including their lives."

It is true that I have reclaimed my house, but I don't think any of us could live there anymore. I've finally come to the conclusion that you don't have to be without a house to feel homeless.

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