BAGHDAD (AFP) — The dusty, battered bus comes to a halt in Baghdad's once upscale Al-Mansur neighbourhood after a 12-hour journey in the night along treacherous roads from the Syrian border to the Iraqi capital.
A few seconds later the door opens. Arif Abdul Salam is the first to disembark.
"Oh! The checkpoint is still there," are his first words as he looks at an Iraqi army outpost at nearby Al-Liqha Square.
"I have returned as I believe the security situation is better in Iraq, especially Baghdad," Salam says as his wife and three children leave the bus and join him.
The family fled to Damascus a year ago after receiving threats from militants during the peak of the brutal sectarian violence unleashed across Iraq after the bombing of a Shiite mosque in the central town of Samarra in February 2006.
"A year ago I received a threatening letter, ordering me and my family to leave my house within 48 hours. I had no choice but to flee to Syria," he tells AFP.
"But a few days ago, I decided to return as I learned that the security situation is better now," says Salam, who took to selling home appliances while he was in Damascus.
He and his family are among thousands of Iraqis plucking up the courage to return to their homes, trusting US and Iraqi claims that bloodshed in Iraq has dropped significantly.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that 7,000 Iraqi families have returned due to the improvement in the security situation.
The United Nations says more than four million Iraqis have been displaced since the March 2003 US-led invasion but primarily since the outbreak of the sectarian violence, half of them seeking refuge in Syria and Jordan.
Life in exile has not been easy for many of them.
"I was unable to find a suitable place for me and my children," says a former professor at Baghdad's renowned Al-Mustansiriyah University, as he holds the hands of his two sons and waits for a taxi to load his luggage.
"I will not tell anyone about my return as I prefer to keep it quiet for a while," he says, refusing to give his name.
Behind him, a woman dressed in a black abaya hugs her young daughter and utters "Ya Rabbi (My God)". The two cling for a few seconds with relief on making the journey back home.
Some continue to be cautious and sceptical.
"I want to see for myself if the situation has really improved or not, before I bring my wife and son," says Ali Mohammed, 59, one of the two dozen passengers or so who made it through the dangerous roads of Anbar province, a one time bastion of Al-Qaeda insurgents.
A retired government employee from western Baghdad's Al-Jamiyah neighbourhood, Mohammed says he is pondering whether to take a chance.
"I will first make sure and only then call my son who can return to his engineering studies," he says as he combs his thick, white hair, ruffled after the tiring ride.
Over at central Baghdad's Al-Salhiyah Street, which houses the international bus station, the scene is somewhat similar.
Dozens of day labourers are busy unloading hundreds of cardboard boxes from the storage compartments of three buses, lined up one behind the other.
Two of the buses had arrived from Syria and one from Amman.
"We are unloading goods, mostly household items, belonging to people who are returning from outside Iraq," says Firaz Abdul Ameer, a supervisor with a travel agency.
"Cargo like this is increasing as more and more people are coming back. People who fled are transporting their belongings back as they too prepare to return."
Iraqis abroad are keenly watching developments back home.
"We want to return as we have been told the US forces had arrested most of the insurgents and militiamen," Merriam, a 19-year-old pharmacy student, tells AFP by telephone from Damascus.
Merriam and her family had been forced to leave their house in northern Baghdad by gunmen she said were Shiite militants.
Ahmed Noori of Al-Taif travel agency says hundreds of people like Merriam are inquiring about the situation in Baghdad.
"There are many across the border who are waiting to return. These days only those with specific purpose like medical treatments are going, otherwise mostly people are returning."
New strict visa controls by Damascus are making it difficult for Iraqis to seek long-term residence in Syria.
The number of Iraqis seeking asylum in Syria each month has dropped from 20,000 to a few hundred, according to Syrian border guards.
But for those who have returned, it is good to be back where they belong.
"Even though I felt safe in Syria, my heart was in Baghdad," says Basil Aiash, a 44-year-old trader. "I heard about the improving situation and decided to pack up and return. This is home."
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