Haida al-Safi: Why Iraqis like me will not go home

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The Independent Online

When US forces toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's al-Ferdos square, with the world's television cameras conveniently on hand, the Americans told us it was a sign of the end of the Saddam era and the start of the new "democratic" Iraq.

As an Iraqi living under Saddam's regime, I had many doubts. My friends and I argued endlessly about the invasion; but we were all hoping for one thing: things in our country could only get better.

It was not long before our hopes were dashed. We could see from the bloodshed all around us that the promises had not been fulfilled.

In July 2005, I left to study journalism in London. As I flew out, I remember hoping against hope that, when I returned, it would be to a peaceful country, not one in which armed police searched me as I came out of the plane.

Now I'm over here, I always keep an eye out for the news from Iraq, the latest instalment of tragedy. I call my family regularly to make sure they're okay. Like any Iraqi living abroad when I hear that there's been an explosion, I pick up the phone and call to make sure they weren't involved. At the end of these conversations, my relatives never say "see you soon". Instead, they say: "Don't come back."

After the collapse of the Saddam regime, many Iraqi refugees hoped the day of going back home had finally come. Ahmed Kadhum, 35, a shopkeeper in London, even placed an advert to sell his shop, so convinced he was the time had come to return.

But they were wrong to hope. As well as the Americans and their peculiar brand of "democracy", Iraqis had to deal with terrorists crossing the borders into their country.

Criminal gangs adopted their tactics and soon became flourishing businesses. Kidnapping gangs spread like wildfire.

Iraqis living abroad have become a favourite target for gangs who assume they are wealthy and have money.

Raad Majeed, a friend who insisted on flying back to Baghdad see his family, came back with a typical story. His family had been so scared he would be taken hostage they locked him in the house for the duration of his stay. Nothing as pleasant as visits to friends for him in this wonderful new democratic Iraq.

Another friend, Kamal Al-Issawi, went back to Iraq for a week but left after three days when his life was threatened. "I would never have believed three days was too long to spend in your own country," he said, wistfully. Three years after the fall of Saddam, we are still ruing the day that we ever believed the Americans would keep their promises.