The key to my neighbor’s house*

“Peace is more than the absence of violence.” It was a saying people working for the international community would often use in Bosnia, where I had a human rights internship last year. There was a deep truth to that statement. Peace is about so much more than an end to warfare, it’s about human security, justice, reconciliation, and reconstruction. It’s something that takes years, decades even, of painstaking work by everyone from high level diplomats and politicians to ordinary people. It’s the unsexy work of disarming and reintegrating former combatants, rebuilding infrastructure, locating, burying and mourning the dead, prosecuting war criminals, reforming legislatures, prisons, schools, and police forces. Peace accords are necessary because they enable all these things to happen, but they’re still just the first step, the basic ending violence part.

Now, Iraq. Pundits and politicians gleefully taut the success of The Surge, because violence has indeed decreased since it began. But that’s not the whole story. And the areas of Iraq where gunfire no longer rings out all day certainly aren’t “at peace,” despite what supporters of The Surge continue to argue.

Yes, the decrease in violence has been real, but the reason for the new calm should be cause for alarm, not celebration.

Ethnic cleansing. What an awful term. It became part of our lexicon after the Bosnian war, and, while linguistically problematic, its meaning is pretty straightforward: people of one ethnic of religious group are killed or exiled from the area they lived in until that area no longer has any members of the persecuted group. That is what has happened in Iraq, and why many formerly anarchic and violent areas, especially in and around Baghdad, are now ominously subdued.

Newly released satellite images back up what human rights and humanitarian organizations have been saying for some time now. Via Reuters.

Satellite images taken at night show heavily Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Baghdad began emptying before a U.S. troop surge in 2007, graphic evidence of ethnic cleansing that preceded a drop in violence, according to a report published on Friday.

The images support the view of international refugee organizations and Iraq experts that a major population shift was a key factor in the decline in sectarian violence, particularly in the Iraqi capital, the epicenter of the bloodletting in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

This, like so many other horrible aspects of the Iraq War, was likely never even considered when the invasion was planned by our feckless regime in Washington.

A recent short film by an Iraqi journalist working for the Guardian shows in maddeningly vivid detail, just how brutally the war has torn apart the fabric of Iraqi society.

When the war in Iraq finally ends, the process of building peace will only then even begin. A major part of peace building is getting refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their previous towns and villages, but that’s not always –or even often– easy, as the Economist recently noted.

A few [refugees returning from Egypt to Iraq] expressed mild optimism that the situation has improved in their home areas. Many more said they were returning because they had little choice: they were unable to work in Egypt and were running out of money.

Nor were they the first of Iraq’s refugees to come home. Some 50,000 people re-entered the country in the nine months up to last March, the UN believes. Among these were 365 families who came back from Syria in late 2007, wooed by a resettlement offer of $800 per household. But most of that group later told the UN they could not “go home” in the literal sense; their houses had either been ruined or seized by others.

Officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also say quietly that the returns from Egypt, insofar as they were prompted by near-destitution, risk violating one of the key principles of refugee law: the idea that people should not be sent back to their home country against their will. But for the UNHCR and other agencies that care for the displaced, this was only the latest of many cases where the high ideals of international law run up against the realities of power politics.

In the Balkans, the problem of illegally occupied properties was “solved”** by the international community carrying out property law enforcement jointly with local authorities. In Bosnia and Kosovo this literally meant (and in Kosovo it is still an ongoing process) employees of the UN or OSCE going with local law enforcement to evict people illegally living in houses that belonged to refugees, whether or not the legal owners had returned.

In Iraq…who knows? The war itself is not yet over, and, while some parts of the country are not experiencing conflict anymore, others may be just about to ignite.

Still, the war will end one day, as all wars do, and then will begin the long process of putting back together what is left of a shattered society. As a friend of mine who works on property rights for an IGO grimly remarked last year, it doesn’t seem like she or her colleagues will be out of work anytime soon.

*The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda, by Elizabeth Neuffer. Buy it, it’s a powerful read.

**Almost all occupied properties were returned in Bosnia (in accordance with Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Accords), but the majority of owners decided to sell them, instead of moving back, and not enough protection and support was given to returnees.

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