2011 Reflections: Iraqi resilience amid war
Seven Monitor correspondents reflect on the world's hot spots. In this installment, Scott Peterson explains why despite the risks, he kept going back to tell the stories of Iraqis.
In the darkest years of the Iraq war, in 2006-07, some 3,000 Iraqis were being killed every month. Every day the bodies of ordinary Iraqis appeared on the streets, tortured in a vicious sectarian war – or blown up by car bombs and suicide bombers.Skip to next paragraph
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Back then, kidnappings afflicted Iraqis and foreigners alike. Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was released after 83 terrifying days; many others fared much worse.
The question came too often to ignore, from my friends and family – and even surprised Iraqis – about why I continued reporting from Iraq.
My answer was always the same: Despite the magnitude of murder, there were also 5 million Iraqis in Baghdad alone who survived every day.
I wanted to tell their stories.
Those narratives could be as inspiring as they were often grim, as Iraq's social fabric frayed under the weight of violence. While the death toll has since dipped (to about 150 civilians per month), many risks remain: In the days after the final US troops flew out of Iraq on Dec. 17, the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for a key Sunni rival, which could prompt sectarian feuds to reignite.
But Iraqi resilience has remained strong, no matter what the challenge.
I found hope in the war diary of daughter Amal, who wrote by candlelight of her fear during the invasion – and of celebrating her 14th birthday as the bombs fell.
Years later, youngest son Mahmoud risked his life daily to sell Pepsi on the street, and daughter Fatima found love through the kitchen window, with a young man in the next apartment.
That joyful marriage would turn to abuse and misery, though Fatima has since regained her coquettish nature. Son Ali would be held and tortured in prison for 2-1/2 years, then released without charge. And Amal and her sister Hibba would finally make it to college – a bright coda.
Yet as the years ground on and the violence deepened, getting to the Methboubs required careful planning and disguise.
I used Iraqi shirts, jackets, a beard, a pair of Shiite rings acquired in Tehran, and an ordinary shopping bag to hide my camera and notebooks, hoping no one would notice me during the short walk to their apartment.
That walk grew longer and riskier when a spate of car bombs in the area caused residents to block the streets with chunks of concrete.
I could rarely stay for long, and left under the cover of darkness. I could never tell the family when I would arrive. But a similar balance of life took place everywhere.
When a double suicide car bomb in late 2005 hit the Hamra Hotel, adjacent to the Monitor office, it blew in our windows – and I had to stagger through clouds of dust with my cameras on my way out.
Those bombs devastated the lives of Iraqis who lived 25 yards from its impact point, including the Khafaji family. Father Yas lost his wife, 11-year-old daughter, and nephew when the bombs destroyed their home.
Such savage violence often defined the disconnect between Iraqis and their American occupiers.
While Iraqis lived under the constant threat of death, inside the fortified Green Zone was a different story. True, US officials, generals, and contractors there were living under frequent rocket and mortar fire. But they were also taking coffee at the Green Bean or grabbing slices at Pizza Hut – a sliver of Americana that was duplicated with everything from enchiladas to Heinz Steak Sauce at sprawling US military bases.
Making a Difference