BAGHDAD, IRAQ — THERE are not many young women left in Al Ameriyah neighborhood in Baghdad. There is hardly a family that did not lose a mother, a sister, or a daughter the evening of Feb. 12, when missiles of the United States-led coalition against Iraq hit a public shelter, killing at least 800 people, according to residents.
``Most of my school girlfriends were killed. I have very few left,'' said 16-year-old Soha.
But neither the death toll nor the vast destruction of their capital city seem to have shattered Iraqis the most, residents say. After eight years of war with Iran, Iraqis are used to large numbers of casualties.
``The most tragic aspect of this war is that Iraqis see little hope for the future,'' said a novelist.
A combination of the effects of an international embargo, political isolation, and destruction of the country's infrastructure convinced many Iraqis that the country has been subjected to ``collective punishment'' by the world, particularly the West. They see themselves as the chief victims in a war launched in the name of international law.
``The problem with the US and the West is that they do not deal with people but with individual leaders, without considering the repercussions on the people,'' said a university professor.
Many Iraqis feel that the real aim of the war was to punish Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for challenging the United States and Western interests. ``But before they will be able to destroy Saddam, they have destroyed us, the people,'' said an Iraqi woman, echoing widespread sentiments.
There are still no reliable estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties during the Gulf war. The Al Ameriyah shelter bombing is believed to be the incident in which the greatest number of civilians were killed. (US officials insist it was a military bunker.)
Despair over casualties from coalition bombing was further aggravated by the civil war that broke out after an informal cease-fire in the Gulf war. The rebellion in the north and south of the country shattered hope in a speedy normalization of life.
Baghdad residents heard that rebels had killed families affiliated with the ruling Baathist Party in Basra, Najaf, and Karbala in the south. Little is known of Army and Republican Guard killings in their drive to end the rebellion.
After being convinced that the war was over, the prospect of more destruction - this time, Iraqis killing Iraqis - deepened gloom in the capital city.
Protests put down
Although anti-Saddam protests took place in Shiite areas of Baghdad in support of the rebellion in the south, they were quickly put down. There is widespread discontent in the capital, but it has yet to take political form; most residents still seem confused and disoriented.
``This is unbelievable - the country is moving from one tragedy into another. I am afraid we shall enter in an endless chain of destruction, just like Lebanon,'' said a professional translator.
For the last eight months, Iraqis faced an international embargo that reduced their lives to the most basic needs. Then came the intensive and daily bombardment, which effectively shut down life in the country.
From the very outset of the bombardment, the coalition forces targeted telecommunications center, power stations, water-purification plants, and the sewage system. The targeted buildings, at least in the Baghdad area, were hit several times until they were beyond repair. After the informal cease-fire, the government began bulldozing the buildings, as repeated hits made it impossible to fix anything.
``The destruction has thrown us a century back. It will be worse than starting from point zero,'' said an Iraqi architect.
For more than five weeks, the country has been plunged into darkness, as main power stations were badly hit. Many Iraqis used kerosene lamps, as in the old days, and candles - mostly bad-quality candles that produced thick, black smoke.
Less than a week after the informal cease-fire, however, the government started a limited restoration of electricity to Baghdad, reportedly using an old power station and mobile generator. The impact was tremendous on the spirit of exhausted Iraqis. Every time a neighborhood was lit, new hope was sparked. The main topic of daily conversation became the areas to which electricity has been restored.
Coalition forces insist that the bombardment was aimed at undermining the Iraqi Army, but Iraqis question why water and sewage systems were destroyed.
The United Nations and other international relief organizations say the bombings destroyed Iraq's infrastructure and shut down public services, threatening the outbreak of epidemics. The World Health Organization reported that Iraq's central water system supplies 5 percent of its prewar capacity of drinkable water.
Citizens, who are getting their main supplies from the polluted river of Tigris, are repeatedly asked to boil the tap water.
``This is like a slow death,'' says one Iraqi housewife.
The coalition forces have reportedly destroyed most of the major factories, and many of the smaller ones. The destruction of vital economic sectors has aggravated the impact of international sanctions, threatening soaring rates of unemployment.
The hardest hit of the population seems to be the younger people who see no hope in a paralyzed, isolated country. After the cease-fire, young men crowded sidewalk coffee shops - which reopened, but had very limited menus. Many walk aimlessly through traditional souks.
``They have nowhere to go, many have lost their jobs and their future,'' said Munir, an electrician.
Souk vendors, however, seem flourishing. Al Shourjeh downtown market place was always busy and crowded. All kinds of goods flood the market, but are unlikely to make life easier for most Iraqis, who cannot afford the high prices.
Iraqis, except for the most affluent, have reduced their intake of meat, bread, rice, tea, and milk. The prices of these staple foods are beyond the reach of many. Tea, a staple in Iraq especially during the month of Ramadan, sells for more than $60 a pound.
Severe shortages of fuel remain, despite the resumption of gasoline sales. Iraqi citizens are entitled to five gallons every three weeks, as 80 percent of Iraq's refinery system has been reportedly damaged by coalition bombardment. Fuel, mainly stolen from Army vehicles, also is available on the black market.
City of pedestrians
The Iraqis have found the fuel shortages particularly unacceptable. ``This is incredible. We are an oil-producing country,'' said a taxi driver. The city's vast number of white and red cabs are rarely seen on the streets now. In the past many, Iraqis supplemented their limited salaries or avoided unemployment by working as taxi drivers. Although the traffic on the capital's streets was slowly picking up, Baghdad has become a city of pedestrians and bicyclists.
International relief organizations have warned that, without fuel, the mission of rebuilding Iraq is impossible and that it will difficult to operate hospitals or to set up water purification plants.
The lack of telephone communications and the shortage of fuel has severed contacts in the city of 4 million.
Relief, workers, journalists, and medical volunteers coming from Jordan find themselves traveling long distances carrying and distributing letters from Iraqi expatriates who have been worried about the fate of their families.
Visitors bring fuel
Visitors, mostly from Jordan, carry gallons of their fuel to supply Iraqi friends. Vans loaded with food supplies and medicine, mostly by Jordanian and international relief organizations, are almost the only vehicles seen traveling to Baghdad along the badly damaged highway.
When this reporter returned to Baghdad, three weeks after the war, there were many charred vehicles on the highway, mostly civilian with Jordanian license plates. They had been targeted during continuous air raids by the coalition forces.
In Baghdad, communications were rendered more difficult after the destruction of two beautiful, historic bridges. The collapse of the bridges deeply troubled residents who are proud of their city's history.
``I just cannot get myself near the bridges. I break in tears just by observing the view from afar. I cannot see the beautiful city destroyed,'' said an Iraqi poet who is in his 70s.
During the heavy days and nights of the bombardment by coalition forces, there were days Baghdad was shrouded with fog-like gray smoke. The air is beginning to clear, but remains heavy.
``They have confiscated everything, the country's infrastructure, our dreams, and even the oxygen,'' said the poet. ``But we should remain hopeful. It is not the first time that Baghdad was destroyed and it was always rebuilt to assume its place in the world civilization.''