Half of Iran's 200,000 Iraqi refugees live in Khuzestan province in south-western Islamic Republic of Iran, along the border with southern Iraq. Many crossed this border more than 10 years ago, when Saddam Hussein's regime cracked down on the Shi'ite uprising in the south that followed the end of the 1991 Gulf War. It is estimated that up to 1.3 million Iraqis fled their homeland at that time. With 200,000 Iraqis still here, Iran has by far the largest caseload of registered Iraqi refugees in the world.
And for the past few weeks, these refugees have been in a state of high expectation. The fall of Saddam's regime has brought hope to many that at last they could go back home. In the camps of Khuzestan, refugees are talking of nothing but the news from Iraq. In Beheshti, where building work is underway to improve the camp's infrastructure, the refugees say the construction work is not needed; what they want is to go back home right now.
In some of the biggest camps, like Ashfari with its 11,000 refugees, tension is growing. The heads of families tell a visiting UNHCR team that they want to go back immediately, and do not understand what the delay is about.
Preparations are well underway by the UN refugee agency to facilitate the return of many Iraqis wanting to go home. Money, staff and equipment that had been set aside in anticipation of a refugee exodus from Iraq during the recent war are now being redirected towards repatriation. The UNHCR office in Iran is working in close co-operation with the Iranian authorities and the UNHCR teams in Iraq to ensure that everything is ready when the repatriation programme does begin.
Yet, despite these efforts, many refugees may have to wait a bit longer. Even though things are slowly improving, the situation in Iraq remains precarious and the Coalition Provisional Authority is concerned that the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees could further destabilise the country. UNHCR is also worried about the well-being of returnees in such an unstable environment.
Outside the camps, some refugees, too, are worried about what awaits them back in Iraq. Almost three-quarters of Khuzestan's Iraqis are not staying in camps, but live among the local population, especially in and around the provincial capital, Ahwaz.
Chenieh Amanpour is UNHCR's community outreach officer in Ahwaz. Her job is to maintain contact with a refugee community that is spread out in different neighbourhoods and villages, and to identify cases that are especially in need of UNHCR help. According to Amanpour, up to a third of all refugee households in the area are headed by women, and these women and their families represent one of the most vulnerable refugee groups. Yet often, these women are quite reluctant to leave Iran immediately without clear assurances that they will be able to reintegrate back in Iraq.
Basad Hosseini was 14 when she came to Iran 23 years ago. Now she has four children and lives in Laskar Abbad, a neighbourhood in Ahwaz where many Iraqis have taken up residence. A year ago, her husband disappeared, leaving her to take care of the family. She has not been able to find a job since then, and has been living mainly on the charity of Iraqi neighbours.
But she says they don't have much for themselves, and she has had to sell everything to survive. The family of five lives in one room, devoid of all furniture except for one fridge. The temperature in Ahwaz reaches an average of 50=BA C in the summer months, so she is very scared at the prospect of having to sell the fridge too.
Hosseini says her 12-year-old girl suffers from heart problems, and she has no money to pay for the doctor. Amanpour advises her to go to UNHCR's Medical Referral Unit, which has arrangements with local hospitals to provide treatment for refugees who are not covered by Iran's health insurance system.
But despite all her difficulties, Hosseini does not want to go back to Iraq. She says that everything that has gone wrong in her life is because of "that country", that it can never be home again for her.
Amanpour's next visit is to Sawari's house. Sawari was tortured in Iraq by Saddam's police after being arrested in Basra five years ago. Her 10-year-old son was arrested with her, but they were separated once they got to the prison. When she was released a year later, Sawari was paralysed because of the torture. She took refuge in Iran, where the rest of her family had fled.
Today, she is in a wheelchair, and she still does not know what happened to her youngest son. Now that Saddam has gone, she says she is interested in going back to Iraq, but only when things start getting better there. She says the family had to sell their house in Basra before they left, and she worries about where they will live if they return. But her eldest son wants to go back immediately, and she says she will follow him if he decides to leave, because she doesn't want the family to be separated.
Like Sawari's son, it is often the younger generation, the children who have never seen Iraq, who are the most enthusiastic about going back. In Motahari refugee camp, an hour and a half north of Ahwaz, children - set free from their school duties for the summer break - gather on the streets and greet the UNHCR team with the chant of "Iraq, Iraq". A clear message, from a generation for which Iraq holds no bad memories, only promises of a better future.
By Marie-Helene Verney