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Gunmen broke into Waleed Abdul-Wahid's apartment in Syria, where he and his family lived for nearly three years.
BAGHDAD, Iraq--The gang of masked gunmen broke into the small apartment near Damascus where Waleed Mohammed Abdul-Wahid and his family had lived for nearly three years. "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" they shouted, as his three children began to cry.
"We are Sunnis!" answered his wife, Wasan Malouki Khalaf.
"Do you know any Shiites who are cooperating with the Syrian government?" the gunmen demanded.
"We do not know any such people," she said. "We are from Baghdad."
The gunmen left. The brief but terrifying invasion sealed the decision Abdul-Wahid had been mulling for weeks: to leave behind an increasingly violent life in Syria and return to Iraq.
More than 200,000 people fled Iraq during the war and sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and almost half of them ended up in neighboring Syria. Now Syria is plagued with the same sectarian conflict, and many of the same people are on the run a second time. At least 22,000 Iraqi refugees are thought to have left Syria to return to Iraq, despite the dangers they thought they had left behind.
Abdul-Wahid had worked as a deliveryman back in Baghdad, bringing cylinders of cooking gas to both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. Militants kidnapped him outside his Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Azimiyah in 2009 and tortured him for four days. His arms still show the burn scars.
The family packed up and fled to Syria, where they built a new life in a mostly Shiite suburb. The children settled down in school, and the United Nations gave them food and an income. Abdul-Wahid, 49, found a job in construction and started taking medication for the severe depression he had suffered after the kidnapping.
Then the uprising against Assad began, and violence returned to Abdul-Wahid's life. Mortars bombarded their neighborhood, and snipers shot at people in the streets. The last straw was the gunmen storming their home in late July, and asking his daughter if she was Sunni or Shiite.
"She did not reply, because she does not know the meaning of such a question," Abdul-Wahid says.
The bus fare from Damascus to Baghdad cost about $110 for each person. Abdul-Wahid had to ask his brother for money, he says, his eyes filling up with tears of sadness and shame. His family is living in a room in his brother's house.
"I have lost everything now," he says. "I am jobless and penniless. I am even afraid of going outside my brother's house. Now, I have to start from zero."
He plans to go back to Syria when--or if--the violence ebbs. Wasan, his wife, says the shortages of electricity and water in Iraq are unbearable, as is the lack of good medical care, security and jobs.
But Abdul-Wahid is doubtful the violence will end any time soon, or Assad will be ousted from power.
"I think that the armed struggle in Syria will continue for a long time," he says. "He is clinging to power. I think that he will survive."