Nation & World

Displaced Iraqis live under stands in soccer stadium

KIRKUK, Iraq — Qader Abdullah Rasoul visited Kirkuk Stadium the day it opened and thought it beautiful. The lush turf was newly laid, and the stands were smooth concrete, steeply tiered to seat tens of thousands of soccer fans. Odai Hussein himself, son of Saddam, attended, and on that day in 1986 Iraq's national team thumped Saudi Arabia 2-1.

Now Rasoul lives in the stadium along with 2,500 others, mostly Kurds. They inhabit mud and cinder-block huts beneath the stands, in the parking lots and the luxury boxes, and it's no longer beautiful. It's a dirty, sewage-ridden slum and Rasoul is the unofficial mayor.

"We apologize to the youth of Kirkuk, because this is a place for sport," he said. "But where else can we go?"

The answer is nowhere, for the time being. Five years after the birth of a new Iraq, Kirkuk is under Kurdish control, at least for now, and at the center of national debate over whether it will join the semiautonomous Kurdistan region or remain under federal control.

The people who live in the stadium are the smallest players in this debate but are caught up in it nevertheless, painted by Kurdish politicians as victims of a central government that's insensitive to Kurdish concerns and by Arabs and Turkomen as pawns in a Kurdish strategy for demographic domination.

So far, Rasoul said, he and his neighbors have been the only losers. "I blame the provincial council. I blame the governor. I blame the central government," he said.

Saddam's government pushed Rasoul and his family from their Kirkuk home in 1997, part of a strategy to assert central government control over the province. In 2003, in the first weeks after Saddam fell, they left a rented house in Ramadi to return. The radio was full of talk of a new Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were doing the same.

But Rasoul returned to nothing.

"I imagined they would give us a piece of land and money," Rasoul said. "No one even said hello to us."

The home he and his family once lived in had been bulldozed. The 10-million dinar ($8,534) resettlement check he thought would be waiting for him never materialized; that program, he was told, covers only Kirkuk residents who were counted in the province's last valid census, in 1957, and their descendents. At the time of the census, he said, his grandfather lived in nearby Sulaimaniyah. It didn't matter that he later returned, that Rasoul's father spent most of his life in Kirkuk or that Rasoul himself has as well.

He has a job as a phys-ed teacher but doesn't earn enough to buy a house in a country where mortgages are almost unheard-of. Housing prices have risen, and he can't even afford to rent.

So a room under the stadium is home for his wife, their six children and him — a temporary solution, he once thought.

There was room for a gas burner, a refrigerator and a television. He ripped up a piece of the rubber running track and laid it over the mud outside, built a cinderblock wall for privacy.

Years passed. His sons dropped out of school to work in a factory. His middle son has trouble seeing, maybe because of the dust. Rasoul squabbles with his wife. Every couple he knows is squabbling.

His neighbors elected him as their representative because he had at least a degree from a technical institute. He pestered the local government until it installed pipes for drinking water; water runs through them about for two hours every eight days. He pestered the Health Department until it provided water cans and purification pills.

But he hasn't found a home for anyone. "I failed," he said. "More than 10 times we went to the governor, parliament, the Kurdistan government, and they have never found a solution for residence. We are still in between. For me, personally, I wish I could go back to Ramadi."

Members of the Kirkuk provincial council say the people living in the stadium are the responsibility of the federal Ministry of Displaced People and Migrants. Ali Mosawi, the deputy minister, said this week that he knew nothing about the situation. "If they are displaced, of course we will have some ideas about helping them."

(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad.)