Can Baghdad's Neighbors Learn to Trust Each Other Again?
Making the short journey to her neighbor’s house under the quiet hum of the lights on Palestine Street, May Mohammed felt a wave of joy wash over her.
May and her husband were on their way to see Sabah Shakir -- an old friend who had recently returned to Baghdad.
Sabah, a housewife, is three years older than May. Living in close proximity had made the two women close friends. They would frequently meet in the mornings for coffee and conversation.
Their friendly rituals ended in 2007, with the kidnapping of Sabah’s husband, Issam, an employee at a telecoms company. Sabah’s family paid a ransom for his release and promptly fled Iraq.
Like thousands of other refugees, they recently returned to the capital, drawn by the promise of better security.
“It’s nice to have friends and neighbors around. Their return makes me feel safe,” May said. “Iraqis are social by nature -- they can’t live apart, no matter what.”
May and others hope the returnees will help neighbors rebuild a trust shattered by years of crime and sectarian strife.
Baghdad’s residential districts have historically been close-knit. Families living next to each other typically took an active interest in each other’s affairs and welfare. But in the conflict of the last few years, Baghdadis say they grew increasingly wary of their neighbors and began spending longer in their own homes.
Though the violence has recently eased, thousands of families remain displaced.
High concrete barriers divide many districts and invisible barriers divide their occupants. Neighbors now avoid casual conversation, particularly in the edgy boroughs that saw some of the worst unrest.
The lingering mistrust is not surprising given that many displaced Iraqis blame their neighbors for their plight, according to Hana Edward, head of Al-Amal (Hope), a non-governmental organisation that works with the displaced.
Many families that belonged to minority groups believe their neighbors informed sectarian militias against them. Others hold the neighbors responsible for the anonymous threats that forced them to leave.
But Edward also noted that many protected their neighbors, a decision that cost some their lives.
Another type of mistrust exists between long-time residents of neighborhoods and recent arrivals that moved in after sectarian violence exploded three years ago.
While an estimated 49,400 families have returned home – 31,500 to Baghdad – 270,000 remain internally displaced in Iraq, according to the International Organization for Migration, IOM.
Newcomers are often treated with suspicion and many are not particularly friendly.
Yusir Abdul-Sattar, a financial affairs ministry employee, and her husband moved to a wealthy friend’s home in Al-Mansur district to protect the property, she said.
The friend’s family had fled Baghdad for security reasons, according to Yusir. Yusir has kept her distance from her new neighbors, turning down offers to visit their homes.
"I come across my neighbors many times, but I just say hi and that’s it,” she said. “I avoid visiting them because people have changed a lot after the war. You can never figure out the way they think or behave, or whether they will be good or bad to you.”
Yusir said traditions such as cooking for new neighbors also seem to have gone by the wayside because “today, everyone fears their neighbor."
In some areas, she said, neighbors “played a despicable role and were the main reason for the killing and displacement. They even took over their neighbor’s house and furniture after the owners left”.
Community and reconciliation initiatives are nearly non-existent in Iraq, with more basic needs such as employment, food and shelter taking priority for the government and NGOs. Those are the most pressing needs for recent returnees, according to a recently-published IOM survey.
“The most important thing for the ministry of displacement and the parliament is to ensure security, financial and social support for the displaced,” said Abdul Khaliq Zangana, chair of the parliament’s displacement committee.
“The displaced need to have official papers so they can get back to their jobs and their children can go to school,” he said.
Edward of the Al-Amal NGO said getting people to socialise in their neighborhoods is not easy.
The pace of healing depends on the security situation, she said, and any social initiatives will ultimately need broader support - from community groups and the government.
“If security stabilises, people will forget their hate and anger,” she said. “But if things turn bad, people will continue to be unfriendly.”
For now, it appears some progress is being made.
"As security has improved, people are starting to hang out in front of their houses to play chess or dominos,” said Shakir Salim, a resident of Baghdad’s diverse Karada district.
“Children ride their bicycles in the streets. Overall the situation is fine, thank God,” he said.