Even at first glance, the neglect is obvious.

A swimming pool and a basketball court loom at the edge of the ramshackle and dusty town of Halabja Taza in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region.

But the pool is empty, stripped of its tiles and serving partly as a trash receptacle. The basketball hoops were looted a while back. Both the pool and the court were part of a beautification project dating from the 2005 parliamentary elections, a brief bit of attention that seemed to pass as quickly as the voting.

It happened again this year, when the authorities tried to curry more favour with residents by paving some roads ahead of the Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections in July.

But the gestures are hardly what most people here are looking for. They just want to go back home to their villages, which were destroyed in Iraq’s long war with Iran in the 1980s or gassed and razed during Saddam Hussein’s infamous Anfal campaign against the rebellious Kurds.

Villagers were resettled in places like this one, called mujama’at, or collective towns, to prevent them from supporting Kurdish guerrillas fighting the central government at the time.

While the world’s focus has long been on the millions of Iraqis who have been displaced internally and in neighbouring countries since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, those uprooted in Iraq’s previous conflicts appear to have been forgotten or simply fallen through the cracks.

Many survive on the margin, seething with anger at the region’s two governing parties. They say the parties pay lip service to their plight and help only those who back them or have wasta, meaning connections and pull.

In a measure of how deep the dissatisfaction runs here, hardly anyone seemed at all gratified last month when a special tribunal in Baghdad looking into the crimes of the former regime handed down sentences in connection with the displacement of Kurds.

“Things would have been fine if there were more justice,” said Abdullah Mohammed, 60.

Mohammed has been living like a gypsy since his village was razed in 1989. He and his wife and 12 children abandoned another collective town three years ago because it was not getting enough water, and came here to Halabja Taza. They survive on his monthly pension of $135 and what two of his sons make as police officers.

Halabja Taza, or New Halabja, was initially set up in 1989 as a collection of sheds with tarp roofs. Most of the people brought here in trucks at the time were from villages around Halabja, where about 5,000 died in a poison gas attack in 1988 by the Iraqi regime. Located between Halabja itself and the city of Sulaimaniya,

Halabja Taza was at first christened Saddam’s Halabja in a not too subtle act of cruelty. The name changed after the Kurds gained some autonomy with the protection of the United States and the international community at the end of the gulf war in 1991.

Since then, it has grown into a town of about 9,000 homes, mainly mud huts or unfinished brick structures that lack some of the most basic amenities. Residents say they are lucky if they get running water every 10 days or so.

Many of the families living in Halabja Taza come from Tawila, a village on the Iranian border that was destroyed during Iranian bombardment in 1981 early on in the Iran-Iraq war.

Although some people have since returned to Tawila and rebuilt their homes with compensation from the government, priority was given to those beholden to the two governing Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

“In general the two parties have not done much, but you do get something if you have wasta,” said Fadhil Hama-Salim, 41, one of the few people to go back to Tawila. He was in Halabja Taza visiting relatives.

Standing nearby, against the door of her tiny home, Gulzar Abdul-Khaliq, 50, remembered the day she fled Tawila in July 1981. She had just given birth that day. “Iranian bombs were raining down on us,” she said.

Initially, her family settled in Halabja, west of Tawila. They fled again northward to Sirwan when Halabja was gassed in 1988. Later that year, Iraqi government forces bombarded Sirwan, forcing the family to escape yet again, to Sulaimaniya.

In 1989, the Iraqi government rounded up many of the refugees in Sulaimaniya and resettled them in places like Halabja Taza.

Abdul-Khaliq and her 11 children have been living here ever since. With her husband dead, the family subsists on the odd jobs her sons are able to get in Sulaimaniya, and by selling handmade traditional Kurdish shoes known as klash.

In the backyard, Kiwan Faraj, one of her sons, was crouched in a corner making a klash. Blood dripped nearby from a row of bull penises that had been hung to dry. Strips of the foreskin are used to make the tips of the shoes.

The soles are fashioned out of animal hide, which is then stitched over with red and blue strips of canvas. The shoe’s cream-coloured top is made of knitted fabric. The shoes are custom-made, and it takes about a week to complete one pair. They sell for about $50.

Farhad Faraj, another son and an expert klash maker, smiled as he recalled how a man nicknamed Karim Klash made a little fortune in the 1980s by selling the shoes to Iraqi soldiers who were responsible for driving out the Kurds from their villages.

Ali Ali, 67, remembers how he and his fellow guerrilla fighters, known as pesh merga, used to wear the klash in the summer as they hid in the mountains. “For days we survived on the bread crumbs stuffed in our pockets,” he said.

Ali, who has been languishing with his wife and 11 children in a two-room house in Halabja Taza, is bitter and says he has gotten very little for his sacrifices.

He sold his land in Tawila more than 10 years ago when he was in dire need. His eyes well up when he begins to describe the natural beauty of his village.

“It is our heaven, our homeland,” he said. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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