A new Tower of Babel? Iraqis flee sectarian violence

March 23rd, 2008 - 11:24 am ICT by admin  

By Nicholas Rigillo
Brussels, March 23 (DPA) Professor Taher Alwan, 46, used to teach at Baghdad University’s institute of fine arts. In 1996, he left Iraq in protest at Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, but gladly returned after the US-led invasion of 2003 with high hopes for his country. He founded a film festival to support Iraq’s new generation of filmmakers and an NGO that produces documentaries about human rights.

But success brought public recognition, and unwanted attention from the country’s militias. Forced to change his home three times by a series of death threats, he finally decided to leave his family and worldly possessions behind and flee to Belgium, where he has been living since 2006.

“Still today, I do not understand why they’d want to threaten a filmmaker. Perhaps it was because I invited girls and boys to attend meetings together, or maybe it is because I criticized the abuse of women’s rights in my movies,” Alwan told DPA in an interview in Brussels.

“But what I do know is that while I am no politician, the threats were certainly politically motivated,” he added.

Alwan is one of more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled their country amid the sectarian violence that has erupted since the US-led invasion. Most of them now live in neighbouring Syria and Jordan, while only a fraction of them have made it to Europe.

NGO workers active in Iraq complain that the US and Iraqi governments are tackling the problem of sectarian violence in the wrong way. Instead of fostering mutual understanding, they are driving an ever-deeper wedge between Shia and Sunni, Christians and Kurds.

And this strategy, they warn, risks encouraging more people like Alwan to seek asylum abroad.

In Baghdad, for instance, entire neighbourhoods have become inaccessible to other religious groups by high walls and armed guards.

“Baghdad has become like lots of mini-Berlins,” said one relief worker who asked not to be named.

Majeed Mutar heads the Iraqi Youth League, a local NGO which wants Iraqi youths to help spread democracy and rebuild their country.

When he delivers food or medicines to a Sunni neighbourhood, he has to dispatch a Sunni employee. When he wants to do the same in a Shia neighbourhood, he has to send a Shia.

“Baghdad is divided along the Tigris River. And neighbourhoods are separated by 3-metre-tall walls. So our movement is severely limited,” Mutar said.

Mutar agrees that the walls, which he says were built by the Iraqi government and by the multinational forces, have helped improve the security situation.

“But that’s only because Baghdad is being separated into Shia or Sunni cities,” he said.

According to Mutar, the guards at a neighbourhood’s gates are immediately able to recognize a stranger simply by the language that he uses to address them.

Valerie Ceccherini of MercyCorps, another NGO active in Iraq, believes the militias not only want to stop democracy, they also want to destroy their country’s national identity.

She argues that Europe, with its successful history of overcoming divisions, should play a more active political role in Iraq, based on dialogue and mutual recognition.

Instead, it appears that near the site of the ancient city of Babylon, a new Tower of Babel is being constructed.

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