During the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence in 2006-7, sectarian militias went on shooting rampages, killing civilians at false checkpoints and outside their homes for a single reason: their sect.
So-called identity-based killings by death squads - one of the major causes of death and displacement at the time - decreased in the following years as overall security in the country improved.
But in recent months, suicide and car bombings have brought levels of violence in Iraq to their highest in five years. Monitoring site Iraq Body Count has recorded over 7,000 civilian deaths since the start of this year.
Security analysts say identity-based assassinations, kidnappings and death threats have also been quietly on the rise (fortunately, they have not yet reached 2006-7 levels).
For Omar Farooq, 34, this new development is a déja-vu.
He fled the capital Baghdad in 2006 because of the risks posed by sectarian militias. Although his family is mixed Sunni and Shia, the name Omar is heavily associated with the Sunni branch of Islam.
Four months ago, he was forced to flee once more. He told IRIN his story after witnessing a murder that hit too close to home.
“Baghdad [in 2006] was like hell. At 2pm, we would close the doors and get inside the house as that’s when cars started roaming the streets and either kidnapping or killing people.
“Sadly hundreds or even thousands - [there is] no accurate record - of innocent men had been tortured and killed [by Shia militias] for the crime of holding a Sunni name. Al-Qaeda at that time used to do the same thing for both Sunni and Shia - kidnapping and torturing and then killing. They have a saying `You are either with us or you are our enemy’.
“The scariest thing at that nightmarish time was that they used to sell the people who carry one of those [Sunni] names, like Omar, Othman, Abu Baker, Ma’aweya, to the highest bidder to be killed by the buyer - like we were some kind of sacrificial animals.
“One day I came back home and saw my family was gathering. They said: `We have got you a visa - you and your sister’. My sister she used to work in the government sector. At that time everyone who was working with the government was targeted - everyone. I told them, `but I don’t want to leave you.’ They said: `We can survive but because of your name, you have to leave.’
“I lived in the [United Arab Emirates] for nine months. Then in 2007, I went to Erbil [capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq]. There was no one left in Baghdad. Everybody had deserted. It was like a no man’s land. Erbil was the safest place at that time for Sunnis.
“By 2008, things had settled down. Militant groups had been diminished. Winds shifted again. So I came back to Baghdad and I even managed to work in the [Shia-run] government sector in [information technology].”
“When I was there, the main manager was very pleased [with my work] but the other manager, when we were alone, he would say, `You shouldn’t be here... You are not welcome here.’
“One day he told me, `You have an old mother and old father. Aren’t you worried that one day they are going to miss you? Maybe one day somebody will put you in the trunk of the car and maybe you will never come back home.’ I came home and said `I resign’. I didn’t go back there.
“This year , the killers started targeting people with Sunni names who had small businesses in my neighbourhood, such as small market shops, grocers or barbers.
“In March, just after the sun went [down], my wife gave me a list of things to buy from the market. When I go to the market, I usually take my daughter with me because she likes it. The shop was on the opposite side, maybe 20m away.
“That was when we heard gunshots… When I crossed the street, I saw a lot of people… They said, ‘They just killed the owner of the shop. His name is Omar.’
“I told my wife it is coming closer; it is like the fire is getting closer. So I said, `I don’t care for myself but for my children, so we should leave’.
From Baghdad to Erbil
“I left my home in Baghdad with all the things still there. We came here [to Iraqi Kurdistan] with nothing, because we needed permission from the Baghdad Operations Command to move our belongings to another province and I cannot enter that place. It’s a very dangerous place for someone with my name. Inside that complex is one of the secret government prisons which specialize in holding Sunnis for interrogation and torture.
“So I was forced to start from zero in Erbil. We slept on the ground and ate canned food because we didn’t have anything to cook with and during the hot summer we had no cooling device - we barely survived. I managed to find a job and last week we purchased some carpet.
“We can’t go back [to Baghdad].
“One day I was sitting at my desk [in Erbil] when my colleague got a phone call and I saw his face drop. I said, `Is everything ok?’ He said the Asayish [Kurdish security forces] had been bombed. Instantly I felt worried for my family.
“It made me feel that I have returned back to the same place I left. All my hopes just collapsed, like I have drawn a picture on a mirror and the mirror smashed.
“Most of the workers in the company have this look of Baghdad people... The people in work started saying things like, `Since you came, things changed’ and `You Iraqi [Arab] people, when you came to our Kurdistan, you abused us, you raised the price of everything.’
“I told my wife I’m thinking of leaving Kurdistan. When we are inside the borders of Iraq we are not safe. It’s the same but different: before it was my name; now it is because I am an Arab.
“Now I don’t know what to do.”
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
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