I used to have a driver called Omar in Baghdad at the height of the Sunni-Shia slaughter between 2004 and 2010. He was a Sunni Arab and, at the peak of the sectarian bloodshed, he fled with his family to Damascus where they stayed for a year.
On his return, he found that his house, on which he had spent all his money and was in a religiously mixed district in west Baghdad, had been seized by Shia militiamen. When he briefly visited it, his neighbours warned him to go away as quickly as he could or he would be killed.
He sold his wife’s jewellery, borrowed some money and paid an Iraqi in Sweden a considerable sum to get him there. It was always a doomed idea because he spoke only Arabic and had no skills other than those of a driver. He flew first to Kuala Lumpur, then to Phnom Penh and finally by bus to Ho Chi Minh City where he tried to get a flight to Lithuania using a Lithuanian passport he had purchased.
A few questions by Vietnamese officials revealed that he did not speak Lithuanian and he was soon back in Baghdad where he tried to earn a living as a taxi driver. This was not easy in a city crowded with taxis, where it was not safe for him to venture into Shia districts. The situation was not quite as dangerous, however, as it had been at the height of the killings.
I lost touch with Omar, which is not his real name, until a few weeks ago when I got an anguished email in slightly broken English, which he must have got a friend to translate from Arabic, recalling that he had once worked for me. He wrote that once again Baghdad had become very dangerous, adding a plea: “I need your help in a simple way, you remember in 2006 I forced to leave my house and threatened to be killed by the shiite militia and after that time I tried to travel to Europe illegally but I failed.
“You know our situation how it is dangerous and very bad…” He asked me to help him get out of Iraq by writing a letter saying that his life is in danger, as it certainly is, and supporting his request for asylum.
I did not think that any country would give him refuge, but I suspected that, if they did not, Omar would make another disastrous effort to get to Europe illegally and either end up dead or even more impoverished than before. On the other hand, it was his choice and I wrote a letter truthfully describing his dire circumstances.
Omar is one of a tidal wave of Iraqis trying to get out of Iraq as the war continues and insecurity grows worse by the day. Kidnapping is rife in Baghdad, with victims ranging from three-year-old children to the deputy Minister of Justice.
Eighteen Turkish construction workers were abducted by a Shia militia and moved to Basra without the government being able to do anything about it. In addition there are daily bombings by Isis which a multitude of government checkpoints fail to stop.
Focus in Europe has been on refugees from the war in Syria, but a mood of desperation and despair is also sweeping through Iraq. Over the last eighteen months the surge in fighting has raised the number of people displaced from their homes to over three million or 10 per cent of the population according to the International Organisation for Migration. Even in the Kurdish north, where security is much better, one can see young men on the streets with heavy rucksacks as they start the long trek towards Europe.
The five or six million Sunni Arabs in Iraq are particularly vulnerable because they are suspected by the Kurds and Shia of secretly sympathising with Isis. Many stories may be apocryphal, but Kurds and Shia claim that wherever Isis advanced, it is aided by “sleeper cells” in Sunni districts.
If the Shia or Kurds recapture an area, the Sunni are given short shrift and, since Isis captured Mosul in June 2014, one million Sunni have fled to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) zone from Anbar province and the provinces around Baghdad. Isis’ capture of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, on 17 May this year, saw another 180,000 Sunni take to the roads in search of safety.
As in Syria, millions of people in Iraq are despairing of ever living a normal life with a job. The mass exodus from the country is gathering pace. “There are eighteen or nineteen planes a day leaving Iraq filled with people with one way tickets,” lamented a former senior official in Baghdad, who did not want his name published.
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A foreign diplomat in KRG, who also wishes to remain anonymous, says that “there are 700 or 800 young men leaving from the two airports here every day, most of whom want to go to Europe. Some of them even have a job and a salary, but see no future here”. He added that, because there is more sympathy in the EU for Syrian refugees than those from Iraq, Iraqi refugees often throw away their passport and claim to be from Syria.
I asked Salim al-Jabouri, the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, who recently visited London and is the most important non-Jihadi Sunni leader in Iraq, about the fate of his community. He said that Sunni demands for fair treatment and power sharing needed to be satisfied, but he did not sound confident that this would happen soon.
In his own province of Diyala, he said that kidnappings and killings of Sunni were increasing. I asked him what advice he would give to a Sunni like my former driver Omar, a man who fears for his life, is without any prospects inside Iraq, and who wants to flee the country. Mr Jabouri said that it was “difficult for me to say, but we must create an environment in which Omar could live in Iraq”. Omar and millions like him cannot wait that long.