My Iraq: a reporter's 20-year retrospective
The longest-serving Western correspondent in Baghdad tracks the lives of two Iraqi friends – from dinners under the moon and palms to the heartbreak of war.
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As the insurgency gathered steam, Baghdad became a shooting gallery. And on an August night in 2005, as Bassim and his family slept, the deafening noise of helicopters jolted them awake. US Special Forces rappelled onto the roof. Others burst through the door in the glare of spotlights.Skip to next paragraph
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Their rifles pointed, soldiers blindfolded Bassim and bundled him into a Humvee while others upended the house searching every corner, terrifying his wife, son, and daughter. It was a scene I'd seen a dozen times, but never did I think it could happen to elegant, impeccably mannered Bassim.
"It wasn't a mistake; they showed me an aerial photo of my house with a red circle around it," Bassim recalls now. "They claim someone gave them the wrong information."
After interrogations by increasingly senior officers about what he did and who he knew, he was released with an apology. Bassim, who loved Baghdad almost as much as his own family, decided a year later to leave for Jordan after a bomb threat and a suspected kidnapping attempt.
"I was right to leave; they would have killed me," he says now, reassuring himself that he made the right decision.
Visiting his old haunts now, Bassim is horrified by the sirens and the security convoys. It's a city he doesn't recognize. The trash in the historic Maidan, the wholesale antique district, almost undoes him. The last time I was there with him in 2005, we wandered through a covered market with dappled sunlight streaming through holes in the roof. Bassim stopped to talk to a cast of characters out of the pages of a novel: an old man behind a stall displaying colored stones that promised to cure everything from heart ailments to heartbreak; a retired prostitute selling local soda while her cat, Mish-Mish (Apricot), kept her company.
Five years later there's been a rare rain in Baghdad, and the markets of the Maidan are padlocked. But then, out steps Bassim's old friend, Hussein Jawad Mohammad, locking up his shop. As they greet each other, it's hard to tell where the tear running down Bassim's cheek ends and the rain begins.
"What happened here after 2003?" I ask, remembering the friends we used to drink tea with, their shops crowded with pieces of history. The thought of Al Qaeda fighters in the alleys and bodies in the streets was unimaginable.
"Shooting. People were shooting each other," Bassim says, still dazed at the killings.
I think of an expression that an Iraqi friend who left uses: "I thought I would die of sadness." But there are so many other things to die from here.
A tattered funeral banner for Hussein's brother, shot four years ago by a US sniper who thought he was carrying a weapon, hangs on a nearby brick wall. Below it is a funeral notice for his father, who died of illness. Another banner outside Hussein's shop says, "If you ask what I am, I am Iraqi. I have a Shiite uncle and a Sunni uncle." It's a call for an end to the violence that Iraqis themselves don't understand.
As Bassim left in March, he said it was for good. Yet he was already dreaming of buying a small apartment here when things get better.
Nermeen, packing up on a March morning in Baghdad, stood in the street with a caged orange canary – a gift from a friend for her home in Kirkuk. She's waiting there for national elections in December to see if it's safe enough to move back to Baghdad.
"My home is here and, really, I will fight to restore it; I will never give up," she says. The Iraq that Nermeen, a devout Muslim, dreams of restoring is one she knows never really existed in her experience. But she believes it could one day – a place of religious tolerance and human rights and Iraqis who have access to schools and museums as well as electricity and clean water.
"Even now, after all these years ... when I am really by myself, alone, I am still that young lady who was 20 years old having all those dreams. Maybe one day I will achieve them," she says.
The Iraqi refugee catch 22
Rafiq Tschannen, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission for Iraq and Jordan, discussed their plight with Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter.
Since the Iraq War began in 2003, 15 percent of Iraq’s citizens have been displaced – 2 million fled from Iraq, 2.7 million fled internally. Rafiq Tschannen, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission for Iraq and Jordan, discussed their plight with Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter.
Q: What caused most refugees to flee, and do these issues now affect their decision to return?
A: One overwhelming reason was the total breakdown of security. Inthe meantime, basic services like electricity, water, etc. havecollapsed. Now some people are returning because security has improved,but some are hesitating because there is electricity where they are staying now and they are thinking, "Why should we go back to a place where there isn't electricity?" It's a bit of a Catch-22 – [if] you don't come, your services won't be restored. What we see is often that the displaced send one or two family members to check out an old neighborhood before making the decision that everybody returns. The government of Iraq would have hoped that the numbers are larger and quicker. But there's a slow and steady return, which is promising.
Q: Why is it important for refugees to return?
A: Among the refugees are a lot of well-educated, well-qualified people needed to help rebuild.
Q: Why haven’t most displaced Iraqis ended up in large camps?
A: The displacement was gradual. Every day, hundreds of people left, but it'snot as though 4 million left in a month. So that's why they were ableto find places [outside Iraq]. The main displacement was from Baghdad,and many went back to their tribal homeland. In a way you can say manyreturned to their origins.