"They sent us away, the people there. They said to us we had to go to our homes in Iran. We would have been killed," said Saleheh Batah, an Iranian woman who has been living in Iraq with her family for years.
Her family, like most of the 7,000 to 8,000 Iranians who made their homes in three settlements around the Al-Kut area of Wasit Governorate, had been given 25 acres of land by Saddam Husayn’s regime. They were paying 2,000 Iraqi dinars (US $1) per acre in rent and 1,000 dinars for water, farmed the land, integrated with the local communities in Dujaylah, Ali al-Gharbi and Al-Kumayt, and had access to both health and education.
But two weeks ago they were forced to flee. Hounded off their land by local Iraqis, about 20 Iranian families moved into abandoned buildings in Basra’s Shatt al-Arab area formerly used as a transit centre by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
About 500 others fled to Bazirgan on the Iranian border, where they are "literally sitting in a minefield", the head of UNHCR in Basra, Mohammed Adar, said. The rest reportedly moved outside the city to the Basra and Maysan governorates, while a small number stayed, determined to reap their harvests.
"They came with guns, during the day and at night. They were saying: 'This land is ours and we will not let you keep it.’ And without the land we cannot survive," says Saleheh. None of the Iranians had been killed by the time she fled, but a local Iraqi who tried to protect them was shot dead, she said.
Hamideh Fakher, who escaped with her 10 children, says she was threatened with all kinds of guns. "They wanted our land and our animals, worth millions of dinars. We were afraid for our children, so we left. Suddenly they changed. They said Saddam had brought us here, and that we had to leave since he wasn’t around to protect us any more." Two local Iraqis were killed in crossfire by the militias, she added.
UNHCR officials have confirmed sightings of masked, armed men during visits to the former settlements, in areas where there is no policing or protection of any kind. "There is great hostility - we have received reports of looting, seizures of land, confiscation of property, and of farm produce," Adar said. "The Iranians had concrete homes and were relatively better off than the locals," he noted.
But while the Iranians had reaped the benefits of having been "welcomed" by the Iraqi regime - having been caught behind the Iraqi border when the Iran-Iraq war ended - they were also trapped outside their homeland for many years.
"We were not authorised to leave the governorate unless we had a special licence from the Iranian affairs bureau here in Iraq," says Mohammad Kasin. "They had their intelligence checking us all the time. Maybe they suspected us of contacting Iranians and giving them information."
Some of them managed to return home in 2001 and 2002 under an agreement between the two governments, but now the Iranian border is closed tight, says Lafta Salman. He thinks Iranian authorities are scared of being accused of harbouring elements of the overthrown Iraqi regime. "Iran wants us to go back home, but it must be done through the UN system to guarantee
that Ba’thist intelligence doesn’t enter with us," he says.
UNHCR says the Iranian government must open its borders, and soon. "The best solution for these people is to return home. Iran should allow them to do so," said Adar, stressing that - especially those stuck in the minefield - were in grave danger. "Coalition forces must also provide security in areas where the Iranians are settled, so that assistance can be delivered to them," he added.
Until assistance does arrive, the Iranians camped in Basra and elsewhere will have a daily struggle ahead of them. They had not received their monthly food ration for three months, says Fakher, because they were told it was being given to the Iraqi army. Now she has only one sack of wheat left. "What has this child done? He’s going to die here. I need water for him and a doctor, and he has to be inoculated against disease," she says. "Please, we need a solution urgently."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions