Baghdad to Damascus, a road with no way back

Iraqis continue to flee their country, and though they long for home, many acknowledge returning is an impossible dream.

DAMASCUS // Under cover of darkness in early March 2007, Umm Mohammed fled Baghdad, escaping the city of her birth just as US soldiers closed in on her. As a member of an insurgent group that worked the west side of the Iraqi capital, she had fought a guerrilla war against American troops for two years, often disguised as a poor street vendor as she helped to set bombs to blow up their patrols.

The militants, mainly former Iraqi army officers, discovered their cell had been betrayed and the decision was made that Umm Mohammed, as she was nicknamed, would leave the country until the danger passed. Dressed as a farmer, she travelled to Damascus, leaving her safe house a few hours before US troops raided it. Now aged 41, unmarried and with no children, she has never returned. Instead, like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis, she lives in the limbo of exile, existing off her meager savings and staying up late watching television for the latest news from Baghdad.

"All the time I'm thinking about home," Mohammed said. "It's difficult, it's horrible being away. All my history is Iraq. My dreams are Iraq." Following the 2003 invasion, a tidal wave of Iraqis left their country, the numbers rising as the violence steadily worsened. The figures have long been disputed, but the United Nations estimates that some two million escaped to neighbouring Syria and Jordan alone, making it the largest Middle East migration in 50 years.

Damascus quickly became a kaleidoscope of Iraqis from different sects, backgrounds, cities and political viewpoints, arriving and settling into three main areas - Jeramaneh, Saida Zeynab and Sahnaiya - to wait out the war. Many were poor, but there were middle-class people, too. According to the UN, 40 per cent of Iraq's professional families fled the country, forced out by kidnappings and intercommunal warfare. Sunni Arabs from Baghdad made up a significant proportion of those arriving in Syria, but there were Shiites, too, along with Christians and a plethora of other minorities. Although tens of thousands of Iraqis have voluntarily returned home since the worst of the violence in 2006 and 2007, about 1.5 million still live abroad, the UN says. In June, the number of resettlement applications for Iraqis filed by the UN refugee agency surpassed 100,000. Antonio Guterres, the UN's high commissioner for refugees, came to Damascus to mark the occasion and to remind the world that, while the Americans might be winding down their war, the refugee crisis is far from over. He appealed to the international community for help and said it was too early and too unsafe for Iraqis to be told to return. In fact, the flow of Iraqis into Syria continues, a testament to the scope of the continuing troubles. Up to 6,000 cross the border each day, some on business, some on holiday and some - usually from Baghdad, Mosul or Diyala - running away from violence, UN officials say. The vast majority do not register as refugees, but many do. Between March and June the UN in Syria added more than 8,000 new cases to its list of almost 166,000. Many of the new arrivals had tried to cling on at home but now said they had little option but to leave. "I waited until after the elections because I thought things would get better but they're getting worse again," said Umm Omar, 30, an English literature student and mother of two who arrived in Syria in July. She has registered as a UN refugee, hoping, in what is effectively a lottery, to win resettlement in Europe. Determined not to abandon her home, Umm Omar had weathered the storm of violence in Baghdad when it peaked in 2006 but said the time had come to give up on Iraq entirely. "It was a combination of things that made me finally decide," she explained. "The security is worse than they say it is. There are no public services, no jobs. You can't drink the water. There's no electricity and the politicians are only interested in themselves. There is only so much you can tolerate. "In Iraq, we live like animals, not human beings. You eat and work and try to stay alive. I want more than that for my son and my daughter. If I were alone, I'd stay - I don't want to be weak or run away from things - but for their sakes, we have left and we are not going back." It was not just ordinary refugees who converged on Damascus. There is a robust Iraqi political scene here, the city becoming a cauldron of factional activity and intrigue as its Iraqi population boomed. During the Saddam Hussein regime, Syria hosted opposition groups and, following the dictator's overthrow, it continued to do so. Only now, however, that opposition includes Baathists, the former ruling elite. The new Iraq has scores of political parties, the most influential of which have offices or representatives in Syria. From pro-government Shiites to pro-insurgency Sunnis, Damascus is a place of neutrality and welcome security. Harith al Dhari, a wanted man in Iraq and once described by the US military as the spiritual leader of the Sunni nationalist insurgency, keeps a flat in the Syrian capital's well-to-do Mezzeh neighbourhood. With the continuing occupation and various foreign forces at work, Mr al Dhari said, the political situation is "very bad" and "getting worse". Security and the quality of life, already poor, are deteriorating further, he said. "People's basic needs are not being met, and we have a government that discriminates according to a sectarian agenda." Mr al Dhari dismissed suggestions that the US military was pulling out and would withdraw entirely by the end of next year, as promised by the US president, Barack Obama. "I don't expect the Americans will leave, I don't trust them," he said. "The resistance groups will continue their fight." A world away politically - but just 10 minutes across town - lives Mohammad al Gharawi, the Syria office director of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Although concerned about the current governmental deadlock and security failures, as an entitled member of Iraq's new political order he remains positive about the future. "The dangerous era has passed. We have passed the civil war, and we will not go back to it," he said. "Iraq is a democracy and all the current parties ultimately want democratic politics to succeed." Umm Mohammed, the former guerrilla fighter who now spends evenings watching television alone in her small flat, said her fury at the US over the invasion is undiminished. But she also says her disillusionment with other Iraqis, including fellow insurgents, and their lack of common purpose, has increased over time, leaving her wondering what has happened to her world. "The problem is that we have all been betrayed, the Baath Party betrayed us," she said. "They should have told Saddam to go and live in the Gulf and we could have avoided the war and spared the country all this suffering." Talk of adjusting to her new surroundings is brushed aside. "I'd never left Iraq before I came here, I never wanted to," she said. "Now I'm alone, there's no one here I trust. I've not seen my mother for years, I've not spoken to my brothers. Everything I have that is valuable to me is in Iraq." She has no expectation, however, of returning soon to the land she loves. "While there is an occupation, I won't be able to return, or while we have this government," she said. "I want to go home, to a liberated Iraq, to a free and peaceful Iraq. That's my dream, but for now the dream is broken."