From the frying pan, into the fire?

“Can you help us?” cries the voice over the phone from Damascus. “There are explosions and killings in our neighborhood. We are afraid to leave the apartment. Where can we go?”

I have no words to advise or comfort them. We are helpless to know how to intervene on their behalf.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive an email or desperate phone call from Iraqi refugees in Syria, from trusted Iraqi translators who know them, or members of their families living here or in Canada. I just received news that yet another Iraqi refugee family in Syria has returned in desperation to Iraq. In haste, they took one of the planes sent by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki from Damascus to Baghdad. A U.N. refugee agency official reported on August 7 that more than 22,000 Iraqis have fled the violence in Syria for their home country in less than three weeks.

Reports of the tragic plight of Syrians having to flee the violence of their country fill the media. The U.N. has officially asked neighboring countries to remain open to Syrians. But the same countries are closed to Iraqis, and the media is silent regarding the precarious situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria. They have no option other than to return to Iraq — the country from which they were forced to flee.

As part of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, I have been following the situation of Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria since 2005, sometimes traveling for up to six months or a year in the region. Just recently, an Iraqi family with three little boys and a 1-year-old daughter returned to Iraq. Iraqi children were being kidnapped, and break-ins and killings were escalating in their neighborhood outside of Damascus proper. About two weeks ago they related to us that they are now back in Iraq, living with friends in a dangerous area. While in Syria they were accepted for resettlement to the U.S., and they want to know what hope, if any, there is for them.

I was in Syria in December of last year during the celebrated U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. I felt ill as I read the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Baghdad and those of President Obama welcoming the troops back at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Panetta told U.S. troops, in a quiet ceremony in Baghdad:

To be sure, the cost was high — the blood and treasure of the United States and also of the Iraqi people. But those lives have not been lost in vain — they gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq. And because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity … We may have ended the war, but we are not walking away from our responsibility.

Iraqis continue to bear the brunt of war. In my last trip to Jordan and Syria in November and December of 2011, I purposely sought out and met with Iraqi individuals and families who had recently fled Iraq because of assassinations, kidnappings and death threats. Their experiences dispel the myth that the war is over. Moreover, since the official announcement that the war had ended, violence has only risen. In June 2012, 544 people were killed in fighting in Iraq. Last month the death toll was at least 325, with almost 700 wounded.

It is the longest war in U.S. history. The first Gulf War in 1991 was followed by years of devastating economic sanctions. The 2003 U.S.-led “Shock and Awe” campaign and the subsequent war unleashed an atmosphere of chaos, carnage and killing that seems to have no end. The mere passage of time cannot undo the damage that our nation has inflicted upon the people of Iraq and the disastrous undermining of international law that went along with our policy. As truth is the first casualty of war, so the recovery of truth is the first step toward accountability. History will hold us all to account for the ruination of Iraq; in taking the measure of this crime we need all the help we can get.

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