BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Mazen returned home in Baghdad last week to a bare living room. He had sold his furniture to pay for life in Syria, where he fled in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
Working as a day laborer there had hardly helped him make ends meet. His mother, Um Safaa, sold her jewellery to support him but he eventually ran out of money.
“We were humiliated there,” said Um Safaa, as she stood next to him and his daughter, who rushed to hug him once he stepped into the flat in southern Baghdad.
Pressed by poverty, Mazen, who did not give his surname, saw a recent drop in bombings and sectarian bloodshed across Iraq as a chance to return home and search for a fresh start.
Thousands of other Iraqi refugees have done the same over the past month, encouraged by the lull in violence, which is partly attributed to a 10-month-old crackdown on militants in Baghdad, and the “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops who were fully deployed in mid-June.
But some returnees say they face a difficult task trying to find jobs, repair their houses or reclaim homes that may have been occupied by others during their absence.
The sectarian violence, which worsened in 2006, has created almost exclusive Sunni and Shi‘ite enclaves in Baghdad, as many from both sects fled their previously mixed neighborhoods.
“We don’t know what to do yet. We don’t even have any stuff left,” Um Safaa, in her late 50s, said, pointing to a living room furnished only with straw mats and a television set.
“If there is a possibility for the boys to work, they will.”
As many as 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan. The government says around 1,600 of them are now returning every day.
The U.S. military say Iraqi authorities do not have a plan to absorb the influx of returnees.
“All these guys coming back are probably going to find somebody else living in their house,” Colonel William Rapp, a senior aide to top U.S. Commander General David Petraeus, said this week.
“We have been asking the government of Iraq to come up with a policy so that it is not put upon our battalion commanders and the I.S.F. (Iraqi Security Forces) battalion commanders to figure it out on the ground,” he added.
But the government has been keen to highlight the number of families coming back to show that the security crackdown is working. It has also set up a committee to provide services to the returnees.
About 375 people returned from Syria on Thursday in buses that the government provided and were escorted from the border by Iraqi troops and police. After the journey they were taken to a hall at a luxury hotel, where each family received around $800 in envelopes signed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
“You cannot imagine our happiness today. This is a painful strike to terrorism,” Lieutenant-General Abboud Qanbar, head of the Baghdad security plan, said.
“Your country needs you. We cannot (lead the) struggle against the enemies of Iraq through military work alone.”
But several families said that in order to help Iraq, they need the government to help them first.
“I have two unemployed sons,” said Samia Jouda Wali, a woman from Basra in southern Iraq, her eyes welling with tears.
“I don’t have a house. I need a place to live with my sons.”
Mohamed Naeem, who fled to Syria from Baghdad more than two years ago, said many returning Iraqis had similar problems.
“Iraqi citizens, especially those who lived in exile, need support,” he said. “Many houses need reconstruction.”
The United Nations refugees agency (UNHCR) said in November it was too early to declare Iraq safe enough to encourage the return of refugees.
“We welcome improvements to the security conditions and stand ready to assist people who have decided or will decide to return voluntarily,” spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said. “But the UNHCR does not believe the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns.”
Abu Wehad, who returned from Syria last week with his wife, said he was not taking the security improvement for granted.
“If there is no security I will go back to Syria,” he said.
Writing by Alaa Shahine, Editing by Tim Pearce