• World

Comfort in a Cold Place

8 minute read

At another time or place, the unknown gunmen who smashed Alaa’s front door and ransacked his home in January might have been armed burglars. But this was Baghdad, a few days after Saddam Hussein was hanged. “They were aiming to kill me,” says Alaa, a television producer who was at work at the time. “I covered every day of Saddam’s trial and his execution. Of course people wanted me dead. I ran.” Three weeks later, Alaa, 29 — like many interviewed for this article, he did not want his last name to be used — peers out of a high-rise apartment building in Stockholm at sidewalks carpeted with fresh snow, a disorienting contrast with the carnage he has left behind.

Alaa’s escape is hardly rare. As Iraq’s bloodletting crystallizes into a civil war, the stampede of Iraqis fleeing their homes has accelerated so fast that U.N. officials now rank it as the region’s biggest exodus in nearly 60 years. Since the war began nearly four years ago, about 2 million Iraqis have left the country and more than 1.6 million others have been displaced inside it, according to U.N. estimates. Tens of thousands more who fled just before the U.S. invasion in 2003 — figuring they would sit out what many anticipated would be a short war — also find themselves in limbo. “As time has gone by, almost none have gone back, and people are beginning to run out of resources,” says Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.

Most of the Iraqis, some 1.8 million, only made it as far as a neighboring country. They have flooded into Syria and Jordan. The 20,000 or so Iraqis who have fled to Sweden amount to a handful compared to the numbers in the Middle East. Yet Sweden provides perhaps the finest glimpse into how the war is driving the country’s large middle class out of Iraq, devastating entire professions. It takes good connections and lots of money — $8,000 to $15,000 — to get to Stockholm from Baghdad, but now it is not just the élite who are willing to pay the price. “At first we saw the really wealthy people arrive here,” says Paal Aarsaether, unhcr spokesman in Stockholm. “But over the last year we’re seeing a lot of middle-class people as well.” Having granted asylum to 2,330 Iraqis in 2005, Sweden received nearly four times that many last year, and officials say they are bracing for a possible 35,000 this year. This winter’s spectacular violence in Baghdad has sent the numbers of Iraqis arriving in Sweden rocketing, according to the Swedish Migration Board. In December, 1,566 Iraqis arrived, nearly five times last February’s figure. Iraqis typically use forged passports to fly to Europe; their own passports usually have no entry visa to the Continent. The Iraqis claim refugee status shortly after arriving in the E.U.

Sweden is rare in allowing entry to any Iraqis who can prove they have just fled central and southern Iraq, no matter what their political involvement or how they reached Scandinavia, according to Swedish Migration officials. (Some Iraqis have been returned to other countries under European rules requiring refugees to claim asylum in the first E.U. country in which they arrive.) As a consequence, Iraqis in Sweden range from Shi’ites like Alaa, who are fleeing Sunni militia, to Sunnis who for decades belonged to the Baath Party and supported Saddam’s regime. Until the volume of Iraqis began to overwhelm Sweden’s bureaucracy, most Iraqi refugees received Swedish residence rights within a year, allowing them to bring other family members into the country. But Swedish immigration officials now say that the huge numbers of Iraqis — and their use of forged documents — have slowed the processing of residence applications. Sweden is still far more welcoming than most countries; Jordan allows Iraqis to stay legally for only six months, while Agence France Presse reports that Germany, which received 1,918 Iraqi applicants for asylum in the first six months of 2006, grants asylum to only about 2%. The U.S. has closed its doors to most Iraqis; many have been killed for working with the U.S. military and its contractors, but the U.S. granted asylum to just 202 Iraqis in 2006, the deadliest year of the war so far for civilians. U.S. officials have said that lengthy security procedures hamper their ability to let in more Iraqis as refugees. The new Democratic-controlled Congress last month held hearings to try to pressure the Administration to let in more fleeing Iraqis, especially those who have worked with the U.S. military or Western contractors.Iraqis in Stockholm fresh from Baghdad say the war is stripping Iraq of its skill base, driving out the people needed to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, run businesses, and staff schools and hospitals. “For months people have been walking around Baghdad saying, ‘Where’s this person? Where’s that person?'” says Raya, a 37-year-old doctor, a few hours after arriving in Stockholm. “Then someone will say: ‘They’ve left; and they have left; and they have left.'” Raya, who did not want her last name published for fear her parents in Baghdad would be targeted, says she is the 11th doctor at the city’s main maternity teaching hospital to flee. “Only my senior [doctor] is left,” she says. Raya sits in a government asylum office in a Stockholm suburb, surrounded by her two small children and five other family members who have fled with her. Days after abandoning their large family house and garden, they now await a bus to take them to a refugee camp two hours from Stockholm. This group alone represents a significant loss of talent for Iraq: Raya’s 24-year-old sister is a doctor who recently graduated second in her medical school class, her brother is a construction engineer who worked alongside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and her husband is a translator for Western diplomats in Baghdad.

Those professionals who have left feel they have no choice. The refugees describe a pattern of anonymous death threats by faceless armed groups, which some believe is designed to drive out middle-class Iraqis. Among the new arrivals in Sweden are hundreds of Iraqi Christians — including at least five priests — who say their tiny community is quickly vanishing. “My students threatened to kill me if I didn’t graduate them, because I don’t wear a head scarf,” says a female engineering lecturer from Baghdad’s University of Technology, one of hundreds who packed an Iraqi church service in the industrial town of Södertälje, southwest of Stockholm. Ali Hamid, a 33-year-old Shi’ite ophthalmologist, had a scrawled death threat slipped under his door; he fled last month, leaving behind his wife and two children. Raya, the maternity doctor, says her family decided to leave when her brother found a note tucked under his windshield wiper saying: “Your whole family will be killed because you work with the Americans.” Raya and her sister tossed bedsheets over the living room furniture and fled to Syria, where they bought forged European papers and then boarded a flight for Prague.

Every Iraqi’s flight is a boon for people smugglers. Sweden grants asylum freely, but Iraqi refugees need to get to the country first; for that, they need a fake European passport. Most Iraqis flee first to Jordan; from there smugglers arrange flights to Istanbul, where it is easy to find illegal European Union passports — “red passports,” as the Iraqis call them. Thus equipped, it’s into the E.U. and on to Sweden. Suad Turky, a 29-year-old Shi’ite religious student from Baghdad, paid a smuggler $10,000 to secure a false passport and a ticket to Stockholm via Turkey. She says she does not know what nationality passport she was issued. Last month, her cousin Mona Ahmad, a primary school teacher, took the same route, after two teachers at her school were kidnapped. “There is constant danger in Iraq, especially in Baghdad,” says Turky. “Nobody can live there.”

In Sweden, the government has opted to protect the Iraqis arriving, citing U.N. refugee guidelines to protect those fleeing, rather than pursuing them for using forged documents to enter Sweden. “They all say, ‘We had illegal passports but we have thrown them away,'” says Gunn Sundberg-Hjelm, an asylum officer at the Swedish Migration Board. Other than checking their fingerprints against international databases, there is no practicable way to prove that the Iraqis are who they say they are. “We don’t turn anyone back,” says Sundberg-Hjelm. “Look at the circumstances they have left.”

Alaa, Raya and others in Stockholm now wonder when they will be able to return. Raya, who spread sheets over her furniture to keep off the dust, now says that she doubts she will see her Baghdad home for several years. She plans to learn Swedish and practice as a gynecologist. For his part, Alaa, hunched over a borrowed computer in his small apartment, spends hours a day looking at digital photographs of his small son playing on his bed back in Iraq. Alaa hopes to get his Swedish residence papers sometime this year, allowing his wife and 1-year-old boy to join him from Baghdad. The exodus from Iraq is far from over.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com