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Iraqi voices: Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Editor's note: Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to see what has and hasn’t changed as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its troops.

By Kael Alford

Entering the settlement of Chikuk (pronounced “Chook), strewn across a former Iraqi military barracks on the outskirts of north Baghdad, the pavement all but disappears and the road turns into a rough dirt track piled with trash on either side. Bare power lines sag overhead, a tangle of black emanating from a privately owned generator nearby.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Mohammed, Hanin, Um-Mohanned and Karrar pose for a portrait inside the walled compound where they live in the squatters camp of Chikuk. Hanin's husband, Mohanned is at work and not pictured here.

As in much of Iraq, citizens pay exorbitant amounts to savvy local entrepreneurs for a few hours of unreliable electrical service. City power, which is spotty at best, doesn’t even reach Chikuk because no one is supposed to be living here. It's not a designated refugee camp; squatters claimed the space and built homes with their own hands. Most of those who are literally living off the grid in this camp are Shia refugees displaced by years of war and violent civil upheaval. Representatives from the U.N. High Commission for Refugees say the Iraqi government is only beginning to understand the magnitude of the squatter problem.

My driver, Sami, and I have visited a family in Chikuk before without any problems, but on this day we are stopped in the road by a cadre of black-clad men in front of what was once a U.N.-funded school. They introduce themselves as members of the “Council of 12” and claim they’ve been elected to represent the community. A bearded man asks me my business and wants to know why I’ve been visiting the family of Um-Mohanned and why we’ve singled them out for help, apparently referring to a bag of rice that Sami gave the family the day before. It does not seem an unreasonable question in a country shattered by political and ethnic divides, where everyone seems to suspect everyone else of ulterior motives.

I explain that we met Um-Mohanned while looking for the story of an ordinary family here.

The men offer us an escort, which we’re clearly not expected to decline. I’m not immune to the suspicions of Iraq, and I wonder if these men have strong-armed their way into this position of authority. I also suspect they may be affiliated with the militia formerly known as the Jaish al-Mehdi, aka the Mahdi Army, the armed wing of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s potent political machine. The militia has been ordered to put down its guns and engage in more socially oriented programs, including distributing aid to widows. The Sadrists know that to hold onto support of nation’s most vulnerable populations, their power base, they will need to help provide social support and keep a wary eye out for any challengers.

Sami keeps out escort busy chatting in the car and we soon reach Um-Mohanned’s house. She greets us warmly as we enter the courtyard of the two-room concrete block house, planting kisses on both cheeks. She tells us that her two oldest sons, who we were hoping to meet, had already gone to work. Then she admits that they didn’t want to talk to us.

So instead I interview Um-Mohanned again and things gradually become clearer.  She has also been suspicious of us.

First, her oldest son, Mohanned (she is “Um-Mohanned” for the mother of Mohanned) is 15 and is married to his 15-year-old cousin -- the delicate girl in pink padding around the courtyard, fetching us tea and bread. She is four months pregnant. By Iraqi law it is illegal to marry before the age of 18, though still common among traditional families or those in need of extra hands around the house. So she had been worried that we would turn the underage couple in to the authorities.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Um-Mohanned and her daughter-in-law Hanin share a breakfast of bread, cream, eggs and tea with visitors.

Um-Mohanned’s eyesight is very bad, she explains and she can’t afford glasses, so she arranged a marriage between her eldest son and a cousin – also a common practice in Iraq and not illegal -- so the young girl could come help run the household. Um-Mohanned admits it was not ideal for people to marry so young, but she says she needed the help.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Hanin, pictured on her wedding day in a photograph with her husband Mohanned. The two were 15 when they married. The couple did not meet before their wedding day.

Then Um-Mohanned reveals a second sensitive circumstance of the family’s life, which began to unravel in 2005 in the neighborhood of Hasswa, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad.

“We were living in the same area like brothers. We didn’t know that this one is Shia, this one is Sunni. But when the terrorists came, we started to hear these names.”

Shia families such as hers became targets, their homes destroyed by homemade bombs or raided in the middle of the night, entire families murdered. So Um-Mohanned and her husband fled for their lives with their three sons and came to Chikuk.

Then one day her husband, a taxi driver, left for work and didn’t come home. She never heard from him again. 

“I asked everyone, I even published his photo and the plate number of his car, and I’ve heard nothing until now,” she says. She assumes he’s dead but is resigned to the fact that she may never know what happened to him.

After their father disappeared, Mohanned and the couple’s middle son, Karrar, dropped out of school to find jobs and support the family. Mohanned drives a garbage truck and Karrar works in the market as a porter, carrying heavy items to shopper’s cars. Karrar earns the equivalent of about $8 per day and his brother not much more. The two boys support the family of five, while the youngest son, Mohammed, who is 12, attends school.

“I felt so sad when they left school,” says Um-Mohanned.

At this point the conversation turns to the complicated dynamic in traditional Iraqi society surrounding the role of women. Um-Mohanned says she told her sons she would have to go to work.

“My sons told me, ‘No. It will be a shame on us. When one of our friends will see you working somewhere, and they will talk badly about us.’”

So Um-Mohanned relented, and let the boys go to work instead.

“Even if I stayed home, suffering from hunger, I would rather that than have my boys hear any bad things about me,” she says.

There was another consideration as well. Crimes of violence against women are rife in Iraq, in part fueled by traditional views of women’s place in society. An “honor code in which men protect women from the shame of contact with men outside the family remains strong in traditional families. In extreme cases, some women who survived being kidnapped or raped were later the targets of honor killings within their own families for bringing shame on the household.

“It’s so difficult to move safely from area to area alone,” says Um-Mohanned. “I’d have to work as a saleswoman, selling simple things. It’s not like I can work in a ministry surrounded by guards and other people.”

The Iraqi Ministry of Central Planning estimates there are 900,000 war widows in Iraq, including those who lost husbands in the earlier war with Iran and to sectarian violence. An extensive survey of widows in Iraq by an aid group Relief International reported that widows are vulnerable to an array of dangers from high rates of poverty and domestic violence to recruitment by radical militants.

I wonder about the men who greeted us at the village entrance and ask her if she knows who they are. She explained that without a man around the house, she has no one to keep up with what’s going on in the local community. She did vote in the last election, for Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, but is disappointed by the outcome.

“We didn’t get anything from this new government,” she says. “We lost our husbands, our houses, our lives.”

She says she sees no government assistance – not surprising considering the central government is barely aware of the locations of camps like these.

Later after tea, I ask Mohanned’s young wife about her arranged marriage. She says she also dropped out of school when she got married and that she and Mohanned had never spoken before that day. She refuses to tell me more in front of her mother in law, but brings out photographs of her wedding day. She is painted in the dramatic white face paint and heavy eyeshadow common among Iraqi brides. She looks unhappy -- almost angry -- in the photographs.

Um-Mohanned says the young couple gets along great now, they are inseparable and they never stop talking. Mohanned’s wife looks away in embarrassment, her face breaking into a shy smile.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Hanin pictured inside the room she shares with her husband in a squatters camp in Chikuk. It is fairly common for girls to marry young, particularly if they do not plan to attend college. Hanin, who is four months pregnant, dropped out of school when she was married at 15 and does not expect to return.


More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws, the people speak
For 'the Sheik,' U.S. pullout is cause for alarm
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods
For women, freedoms under fire
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling

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Koppel: Is the U.S. really leaving Iraq?
Engel: A look a the US bases, Iraqi troops and other legacies of the US presence