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Violence Forces Many Iraqis to Safer Havens in Iraq


Hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqis have fled sectarian violence near their homes since Saddam Hussein was ousted, and the U.N. says up to 1 million more could flee their homes this year. About half of them are believed to go abroad. The rest move elsewhere in Iraq. VOA's Barry Newhouse is in northern Iraq and has this profile of one man who decided this week that his neighborhood in the city of Mosul had become too dangerous for his family.

It's a Friday morning in Irbil, the start of the weekend, and while many stores are closed, the local barbershop is packed.

In the back of the store, at the last chair, is the shop's newest barber, a 27-year-old Christian man who does not want to reveal his name for fear of reprisals against family he has left behind in Mosul. He asks to be called Bashar.

Bashar brought his wife and two children to Irbil in recent days, after the threats and killings in his Mosul neighborhood became too much to bear. He says Sunni Arabs are increasingly targeting Christians and Kurds.

"I can't even describe the situation to you - it's so hard," he said. "Especially nowadays, they are kidnapping so many people. Even people who sell gas or vegetables on the street. They take money from them, or kidnap and kill them, if they don't pay."

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says nearly 400,000 people have been displaced over the past year in Iraq. It says a rise in sectarian violence led to the forceful removal of people from their homes in some mixed neighborhoods.

Mosul is Iraq's third largest city, and while it has not experienced the same level of sectarian killings as Baghdad, Bashar says the situation is becoming dire.

He says Mosul's Muslim Arabs, Christians and Kurds have lived together for many years without major problems. Tension among the groups increased following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But Bashar says the turning point for his neighborhood came last September, when the pope quoted a critic of Islam in a public address, sparking a violent reaction from extremist Muslims.

"When we heard the pope talk against Islam at that time, it was so hard for us," he added. "They attacked the churches and attacked our homes. They tell us, 'you are Christian and you must leave your home.'"

He says militants later kidnapped the local priest and cut off his arms, legs and head. Since then, Christians and Kurds have been leaving Mosul in increasing numbers. He says three-quarters of his neighbors have now left town, and many have abandoned their homes.

"Some people rent their houses, but others are taken by the Sunni refugees who come from Baghdad," he noted. "They see it's an empty house, and they move in. But the people who get a warning and then leave town, sometimes the mujahadeen will use the house or they will blow it up."

Bashar's brother and father have stayed behind to guard the family home, and he worries for their safety. There are people in the neighborhood, Bashar calls them "spies," who he says call up local militants and tell them where the Christians and Kurds live. The family still does not know who threatened them several weeks ago.

"We don't know them. We can't see their faces, all we see is the mobile phone number when they call us. If they can't reach you on the phone, then they kidnap you. And if you don't have the money, or you don't pay, then you will be killed."

Bashar owned his barbershop in Mosul, which he was able to buy with the money earned from 11 years of cutting hair. When local militants found out, they demanded $6,000. He paid the money, but more demands followed. Facing few options, he decided to move to Irbil.

The Kurdish-majority city is only about 70 kilometers from Mosul, but it is a great deal safer. Tight Kurdish-run security makes the city a haven for Kurds and Christians, but it also keeps out many Arab Muslims.

"It's true the distance is only one hour between Irbil and Mosul, but I feel as if I'm in a strange country," he said. "It's so hard for me, because I left everything behind. I left my home, my shop and my friends. It's so expensive for us."

Bashar now makes less money cutting hair in someone else's barbershop. His brother works in construction. Their combined income is barely enough to get by, partly because the arrival of fleeing Iraqis has driven up local rents.

Bashar says he hopes the situation in Mosul eventually will improve enough for him to return. In the meantime, he says, the coming months will be difficult for him and his family.