"The house returned to its owner. The rights returned to its holder," two sentences written along the streets in and around the Utayfiyah area of western Baghdad, where a community of Fayli Kurds, once estimated at one million, used to live. Though Iraqi citizens, many of whom were earlier exiled to Iran, the group faces immense challenges in their struggle to return.
"I remember when Abd al-Rahim's family had to leave from the house next door," said Umm Diya, a neighbour to the Fayli family who had been exiled by Saddam's government in 1982, recalling how they used to live side by side like one family before the government seized their home. "My son was a good friend of their son. We still miss them very much, but we're hoping they will come back soon."
But the hope of such a return is not without complications.
According to David McDowall, a specialist on Middle East affairs with a particular interest in minorities, and author of a book entitled "A Modern History of the Kurds", the Fayli Kurds, resident in Iraq since the Ottoman empire, have had a tenuous relationship with the Iraqi government. In fact, as a matter of policy, the state had long argued that, given their religious beliefs, they were actually Iranians.
At least 50,000 Fayli Kurds were expelled in the late 1970s and, by 1987, at least another 50,000 had crossed the border to Iran. By the end of August 1988, probably another 100,000 or so crossed, bringing the total to something in the order of 250,000, McDowell said in his book.
As part of the state's campaign, property belonging to Fayli Kurds was confiscated and they were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship. But it was the 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran that Saddam seized as the perfect excuse to send what remained of them to Iran.
"I was 12 years old when the headmaster at my school told me that I had to be a Ba'thist [Saddam Hussein's Ba'th party], because he knew that my father belonged to another party [the Shi'ah religious Da'wah party]. I didn't know what he meant, but I said 'no', and only two days after this took place, all my family was sent to Iran," Safa told IRIN, declining to give his full name as he had only returned from Iran 10 days earlier.
Most of the Fayli Kurds were merchants who owned many offices and shops. They even founded the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce during the 1960s, but now remain reluctant to return unless all their rights, wealth and property are restored.
The houses and other buildings belonging to the Faylis were either turned into offices for the police, security or intelligence services, or given to people who had worked for them.
In some ways, the families of Abd a-Rahim and Safa could be considered lucky. Safa said that during the anti-Fayli campaign, many male members of families aged between 18 and 35 were picked up by the authorities and imprisoned, many of them never to be heard from again. He believed that about 12,000 such young men simply disappeared.
Today, the situation resulting from that campaign constitutes a major obstacle to the group's return. "The question is who owns the documents that prove that they are the true owners of the property," Zaynab Murad of the Cultural Association of Fayli Kurds said. "A lot of the people that were exiled to Iran stayed there, but a few fled to Europe."
According to Zaynab, at the time of the campaign, most of the Fayli merchants and traders were summoned to an emergency meeting and told to bring all their documents. When they complied, they were arrested and their documents confiscated before being sent to the border without their families.
"We had 10 to 15 cases where the new owners of the houses welcomed the idea of giving the properties back, but in many other cases, the residents were not helpful," she said, noting that her association now had legal consultants awaiting a new government to enable them to take the cases to court. But "only a few Faylis will ever return to the country that they once used to call home", she predicted.
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