A year later, one Baghdad family rebuilds and returns
BAGHDAD — The most common sounds that punctuate the Baghdad air may be car bombs and mortar blasts, screaming victims and weeping mourners.
But other sounds resonate from the city's violent streets as well: of families rebuilding torn lives, of bricks and mortar rising – and not being blown apart – and of new glass being fitted.
One year after a dual suicide truck bombing targeted the Hamra Hotel complex, the extended al-Khafaji family, which lost three members as well as their home, has finished rebuilding.
"Maybe we did some good things for God," muses patriarch Khudair al-Khafaji, sitting at the same place, in the same room, where he was waiting for breakfast that Friday morning a year ago, when the blasts peppered his face and legs with glass.
Mr. Khafaji wipes his eyes at the memory. But now, this room smells of fresh pale- pink paint and has new carpets. The ornate wrought-iron door is original, but has been painted white instead of green.
"What you must remember are the good things," says the butcher, stoically hiding, for a moment, deep bitterness. Among those good things are the outpouring of support from neighbors and extended family after a tragedy that engulfed the entire neighborhood and killed eight Iraqis.
One building was reduced to rubble; another was too damaged to repair. Other houses less wrecked than the Khafaji's have been abandoned.
But the bombing of Nov. 18, 2005, came just weeks before an important election, in a relatively safe neighborhood. Affected families were given unusual attention from politicians trying to show that the Iraqi government was working to help victims.
Then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari's office gave this family the equivalent of $4,700. They received $2,000 from a pool raised by journalists to help a number of families affected by the blast. The mayor gave them another $500. The municipality provided some large sheets of pane glass, 1,000 bricks, two oil heaters, two blankets, and a small generator. Promises of prefabricated housing and other reimbursements were never met.
"That was the season of the election, this noisy thing before the vote," says Khafaji, to the knowing nods of his relatives. "After that, no one came to see us."
There were also promises from the religious establishment, and from other families and relatives. But they turned out to have their own problems to deal with first.
"At that time, we believed their promises," says Ahmed al-Khafaji, a nephew of Khudair. "Over time, we deleted these ideas."
The result meant that the family had to disperse to different parts of Baghdad while all efforts were put into rebuilding. To raise funds, the car was sold for $1,500, one-quarter of its preblast value, and builders and painters within the family were able to arrange work far more cheaply than most Iraqis would have to pay.
As cash ran out, however, the rebuilding had to be limited. The new house only has a ground floor, not two stories, like before, and it consists of only three rooms, not six.
The weave of life also has a different quality today. First- and third-graders Ali and Hassan quickly lose interest in a new visitor and step outside into the unfinished courtyard to kick around a partly deflated soccer ball. They laugh and joke with each other, and bring smiles to the rest of the family.
They have not been told the truth about how their mother, Azhar Kamel, died during the second explosion, right under this concrete awning where they now kick the ball around.
Azhar had sent Hassan to the shop for bread, and after the first explosion began to chase after him; the second blast brought down the awning and caught her.
The boys' 11-year-old sister, Roussel, also died that morning, at the top of the back stairs. Their father, Yas, was with her but only broke his leg. Today, he works in an auto-parts shop.
Mother Azhar, as far as the boys understand it, is visiting relatives in Egypt. For most of the past year, they lived at their aunt's house, where they went to a new school with a cousin.
"It helped them forget," says Salaam al-Khafaji, an uncle to the boys, and son to Khudair. He works at the Hamra Hotel's reception desk, but was at home during the blast. His wife was seriously injured; his son Ali was killed as he walked to his job in the Hamra sweet shop. Surveillance video showed Ali virtually at the point of impact when the first truck drove up and exploded its bomb.
"We are just as religious as before," says Salaam, whose family recently moved back into the newly finished house. It was getting too dangerous, because of sectarian killings, to make the daily commute from their temporary apartment. "We pray every day, and fast during Ramadan. We are believers."
But those beliefs have been severely tested. In one way, the family says, it feels safer: After the blast, the Hamra Hotel (which is used primarily by Western media organizations) extended the perimeter blast walls and increased the number of large, sand-filled Hescoe barriers.
But in another way, this family – and all Iraqi families in Baghdad – feel less safe than they did a year ago because the scale of sectarian violence, at the hands of both insurgents and Shiite militia-run death squads, is leaving up to 3,000 dead each month in Iraq. Many of those are murdered in the capital.
It means families such as this one have more to worry about than just whether they will be caught in an explosion.
"When you wake at 8 a.m., all is good and the house is complete. And by 8:15 a.m. the house is destroyed, your family is destroyed, and your shirt is full of blood," says Khafaji tearfully of the shock of a year ago.
He then becomes more philosophical about why his family has been able to turn the sound of bombing into that of building.
"When God created humanity, there was no difference between people," he says, "just those who do good work and believe."