'We're in a dark, dark tunnel' family weathers attacks, prepares for U.S. siege
March 24, 2003
BAGHDAD -- The melancholy wail sailed across the city and pierced the walls of the middle-class Baghdad home. The sleepless family listened in silence until the mother, her face lined with fear and pain, shook her head.
"Siren," she whispered.
At that, her daughter jumped up and threw open the door. She ran to open the windows next, fearful the blast would shatter them. The son sprinted outside, hoping to spot a low-flying cruise missile that would send the family huddling, yet again, in a hallway.
And they waited for the bombs.
"It's terrible," the mother said, as the minutes passed. "We really suffer, and I don't know why we should live like this."
Her daughter nodded. "I get so scared, I shake," she said. "I'm afraid the house is going to collapse on my head."
While the outside world has grown accustomed to detached images of fire and fury over Baghdad, and the government here boasts of victory over the invaders, this rattled family of five in the middle-class neighborhood of Jihad has watched war turn life upside down. Their world now is isolation, dread and a bitter sense that they do not deserve their fate.
"We're in a dark, dark tunnel, and we don't see the light at the end of it," the daughter-in-law said.
The family met privately with a journalist today, without the presence of a requisite government escort and with a promise that their identities would not be published. Over a lunch of Iraqi dishes -- pickled mango, kibbe, kufta and chicken cooked with rice, peanuts and raisins -- they spoke with unusual candor about politics and war. At times brashly, they discussed subjects that are usually hinted at, as if Baghdad were already in limbo between its past and its future.
"Iraq is ready for change," the father said. "The people want it; they want more freedom."
But family members expressed anger at the U.S. government, which has promised to liberate them. They criticized President Saddam Hussein and his dictatorial rule, but insisted that pride and patriotism prevent them from putting their destiny in the hands of a foreign power.
They spoke most fervently of a longing for routine -- the most mundane rituals of going to work, sharing dinner on a quiet night and sleeping at a set hour. They predicted little of that stability ahead. From a bloody battle for the capital, to lawlessness, to the humiliation of an occupation, they braced for a future that hardly anyone in Baghdad dares predict.
"Everything is turned around," the daughter-in-law said.
For weeks, the daughter-in-law helped prepare the house for war. She and her husband hauled a mattress downstairs, setting up their bedroom in the dining room. The family rearranged furniture so that they could sprint to open the windows. Sofas and tables were cloaked in dust cloths to protect them from flying glass and debris. Two rifles and bags of ammunition were propped against the wall.
Scattered around the two-story house were supplies to help them withstand a siege. Two tanks were filled with kerosene for cooking in case the electricity went out. The mother filled every pan, kettle and thermos with water, in case the pumps stopped working. Flour, sugar, rice, beans, powdered milk, biscuits, jam, cheese, macaroni, wheat, and cereal filled bag after bag.
"These will last three months," the son said, surveying the stockpile.
His wife interrupted to disagree. One month, no more. "The men in our family have very big appetites," she said.
It was a rare moment of levity in a city with little joy. The family members gazed out the window at a sky shrouded in black smoke from fires lit by Iraqi forces to conceal targets from U.S. strikes. The oil pits burned for a second day, turning a sunny, cloudless Baghdad sky into an eerie gauze. In vain, the family hoped the smoke would limit the air assault.
They had already had enough, they said. The worst so far was Friday, when U.S. and British forces fired 320 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Baghdad, wrecking the symbols of Hussein's rule. Ten of the missiles landed near their home, shattering the window in the front of the house. The shock waves threw open the refrigerator, tossing its drawers on the kitchen floor.
"They were powerful, really powerful," the mother said. "They came one after another."
Baghdad is a city that takes pride in its toughness. Residents are fond of listing the challenges history has thrown before them. The men in the family sounded a similar theme.
"We have 11,000 years of history. I know it sounds facetious, but it gives you resilience," the father said.
Of the bombs, his son added, "The bark is worse than the bite." But in private moments today, the suffering was close to the surface. Friends, they said, had fled to Syria in January, only to run out of money before the war started. Others had headed north to the city of Mosul, hoping to endure the war with relatives.
Those who stayed have struggled to negotiate the uncertainty. A pregnant friend of the daughter-in-law was supposed to have a Caesarean section within 10 days. But her doctor has vanished. Hospital after hospital has refused to admit her, overwhelmed with the task of preparing for the wounded. Another friend who is seven months pregnant has begun taking valium.
A neighbor said she stuffed cotton in the ears of her two young children every night. She fretted about finding diapers and milk.
"She's in a complete panic," the daughter-in-law said.
When it came to the cause of Iraq's predicament, family members pointed to Hussein, describing him as rash. He invaded Iran, trapping them in an eight-year war. He seized Kuwait, bringing on the Persian Gulf War and the devastation of sanctions that largely wiped out Iraq's middle class. After that war, they were ready to overthrow him themselves.
But they bitterly denounced the war the United States has launched. Iraq, perhaps more than any other Arab country, dwells on traditions -- of pride, honor and dignity. To this family, the assault is an insult. It is not Hussein under attack, but Iraq, they said. It is hard to gauge if this is a common sentiment, although it is one heard more often as the war progresses.
"We complain about things, but complaining doesn't mean cooperating with foreign governments," the father said. "When somebody comes to attack Iraq, we stand up for Iraq. That doesn't mean we love Saddam Hussein, but there are priorities."
A friend of the family interrupted. "Bombing for peace?" he asked, shaking his head.
"I don't even care about the leadership," the daughter-in-law said. "But someone wants to take away what is yours. What gives them the right to change something that's not theirs in the first place? I don't like your house, so I'm going to bomb it and you can rebuild it again the way I want it, with your money? I feel like it's an insult, really."
Gathered around the table, the family members nodded their heads.
"There are rumblings of dissent," the father said. "But these rumblings don't mean: Come America, we'll throw flowers at you."
The family is Sunni Muslim, a minority from which the government draws its strength. Sunnis appear to have the most to lose in a postwar Iraq that would undoubtedly devolve authority to Kurds in the north and the Shiite Muslim majority in the south. The son acknowledged that some Shiite friends had a different opinion of the U.S. attack. But Iraqi nationalism -- and a history replete with sometimes violent opposition to foreign intervention -- could influence the course of the war and its aftermath.
On this day, though, survival was the more pressing issue. By late afternoon, the thunder of bombing broke across the horizon. The son said he heard a rumor that B-52s were on their way, and the family members guessed at the time it would take them to arrive.
They were jittery, flinching at the slightest sounds. "That's wind, that's wind," the father said when the door slammed shut. When the son got up, his chair banged the wall and the mother jumped. A few minutes later, he did it again.
"Quit doing that," his mother said. "I'm so scared. Every little noise."
Outside, the sounds of ordinary life came from the street. A cart passed the house, its horn blowing. It had come to collect trash and refill kerosene tanks for cooking. As the cart passed, the routine it evoked seemed to anger the son.
"I should be able to live like other people are living," he said glumly. "I shouldn't fear bombs falling on my head, I shouldn't be hearing sirens. Why should I have to like this? Why should this be normal?"
Everyone looked to the floor, no one saying a word.
In a moment, lives get blown apartMarch 26, 2003
BAGHDAD -- Shards of corrugated tin dangled from roofs like chimes, colliding on the winds of a savage sandstorm. Shattered pipes poured sewage into the streets. The charred carcasses of cars sat smoldering, hurled onto the sidewalk.
Ali Abdel-Jabbar watched helplessly as his friend, Mohammed Abdel-Sattar, lay on the ground, his legs torn off. He lived. Across the street was the severed hand of Samad Rabai, tossed gracelessly in a pool of blood and mud. He died.
In a moment, two explosions transformed a busy stretch of life today into a junkyard of mangled wires, uprooted trees, toppled lights, anguish and grief.
Iraqi officials said at least 14 people were killed and 30 injured in the blasts -- a count that matched hospital estimates -- in the biggest loss of civilian life in Baghdad since U.S. and British air attacks began last week. The explosions devastated a 100-yard swath of shops, homes and a restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of Shaab, on Baghdad's northern outskirts.
Pentagon officials denied responsibility for the bombing, saying there were no U.S. targets near the neighborhood. But U.S. military officials in Qatar said that U.S. aircraft targeting Iraqi surface-to-air missile launchers in a residential area in Baghdad had fired precision-guided weapons at about the same time as the bombing, possibly causing civilian damage.
In the Shaab neighborhood, the carnage spoke of the helplessness and dread that has enveloped the capital.
"Who accepts this?" shouted George Said, a mechanic whose store was littered with spilled oil, a door torn from its hinges onto the floor. "Does America like this, does Bush like this, do the American people like this? How can they accept the destruction?"
Crowds poured into the muddy, congested streets, shouting, "We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Saddam."
But in private, some residents complained bitterly that the Iraqi military had trucked missiles and other weapons to a grass-and-mud clearing at the neighborhood's edge. One neighbor said the trucks moved in from 11 p.m. to dawn, their movements shrouded to a degree by a two-day sandstorm that Iraqis said was the fiercest in years. Four tents and military equipment remained there today, concealed in part by trenches and dozens of industrial-size spools for cable. Down the road were at least four antiaircraft guns.
The neighbor said he blamed "both sides" for the destruction that sent shattered glass cascading through his apartment. His refrigerator and television rested against the pockmarked wall, tossed across the room by the force of the blast. Flying debris injured his mother, father, brother and sister, all of whom lived together in a cramped, two-room apartment.
"We are the simple people who get hurt. The government doesn't get hurt, but we end up getting hurt," the 35-year-old resident said. The government "is responsible for the people. They should take care of the people."
It was a day of menace in Baghdad, a capital forced to contend with around-the-clock bombing, smoke billowing from burning oil trenches that has compelled some to flee, and a sandstorm that has convinced many that divine intervention rules their fate.
On the storm's second day, the city of more than 5 million was coated in a film of dust, blown in from Iraq's deserts. The sky turned from a blinding yellow at dawn to blood-red in the afternoon. A dusk-like brown was followed by an eerie orange at nightfall. An occasional vegetable stand provided the city's few glimpses of color in its onions, tomatoes, eggplant and oranges. Rain fell throughout the day, bathing Baghdad in mud.
Cars drove with their headlights on at noon, and street lights cast a faint glow over the city streets. Residents complained of sleeplessness, some saying they had started taking Valium to ease the anxiety brought by the storms and the bombing. Few in the capital predicted that the worst was over; even fewer were willing to predict what the next few weeks would bring.
Shaab today was their worst fears made plain.
U.S. forces have, on the whole, waged their air assault on Baghdad with precision, targeting presidential palaces, government offices and intelligence headquarters since last week. At dawn, blasts shook the area that houses the Information Ministry, knocking Iraqi television off the air for several hours. But there have been errant strikes too, demolishing a student union building at Mustansiriya University, a laundry in a village outside Baghdad and clusters of homes in the neighborhoods of Adhimiya and Qadisiya.
In Shaab, the bombs struck at 11:30 a.m., a time that the streets, even in war, were crowded with mechanics, vendors of auto spare parts, customers at electric appliance stores and families sitting down to a late breakfast after a jarring night of bombing.
Residents said they heard the murmur of a bomber in a cloaked sky. Seconds later, the first explosion struck.
Abdel-Jabbar was in his workshop, putting together cardboard boxes. The blast collapsed the shop's entrance, showering the store with bricks and cinderblocks. He said the shock waves tossed cars and people several feet. One of them was Sattar, a 22-year-old friend repairing his car in the street. Sattar survived, Abdel-Jabbar said, but his legs were severed.
"Does he carry weapons of mass destruction?" Abdel-Jabbar shouted, as the sirens of ambulances, police cars and civil defense vehicles tried, in vain, to navigate traffic that had come to a standstill in the wrecked street. "Do his wife and children carry weapons of mass destruction?"
Next door, two workers had been scurrying around the Dulaimi Restaurant, preparing for lunchtime. Both were killed in an instant. The restaurant's red and blue tiles lay splintered on the sidewalk, plastic white tables and chairs were turned upside down, wires hung from the ceiling like a spider's web and its sign dangled overhead, giving perch to a bird.
Within moments, the second blast struck the other side of the street. Qais Sabah and his family of eight were sitting down to a breakfast of falafel, boiled eggs and bread. They jumped at the first explosion, then were thrown to the ground by the second.
Hours later, the 35-year-old day laborer looked out over the detritus of his house. A cracked porcelain plate that read "God" hung askew on the wall. On the sidewalk outside was the severed hand of Samad Rabai, 17, the owner of an appliance store.
"It's a crime against us," Sabah said. "There's nothing here to bomb."
Tareq Abdullah was making a halfhearted attempt to wash the dust off his white Lada sedan when the bombs struck. He was thrown several feet, then crawled to his car. He said he was desperate. His 4-year-old son, Ali, was still inside, screaming.
In the hospital, Abdullah lay in a bed with bandages covering wounds to his head, chest and both legs from flying debris. He had trouble hearing, his ears still ringing from the bomb's percussion. "I feel pain," he said, over and over.
Next to him, his brother Ahmed, wearing a soccer jersey smeared with dried blood, looked at the bed and started crying.
"Look at my brother," he said, shaking his head. "Look at my friends."
In another room, Alawi, the nickname given to young Ali by his relatives, lay in a bed with a bandage over his head. With deep brown eyes and the look of a young child struggling to make sense of disaster, he said the Americans were trying to kill his father. He pulled nervously on the threads of the blue-and-white blanket covering the cut on his shoulder, recounting his fear.
"But I'm not afraid anymore. I'm brave," he said meekly.
Hours after the attack, residents piled trucks with their belongings. One patriarch threw mattresses, red and pink blankets and pillows off a ledge to his children below, careful to keep their few belongings out of the mud and sewage. Another man carted a refrigerator, chairs, shelves and blue bedding in a pile along the street. Workers emptied a workshop of battered machinery, then slapped mortar on cinderblocks to build a wall across its door.
"We'll clean up," Sabah said. "We'll find our relatives. We have to go somewhere else. We have no place left."
A boy who was 'like a flower' 'the sky exploded' and Arkan Daif, 14, was dead
March 30, 2003
BAGHDAD -- On a cold, concrete slab, a mosque caretaker washed the body of 14-year-old Arkan Daif for the last time.
With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Daif's olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of Daif's right arm and right ankle with the poise of practice. Then he scrubbed his face scabbed with blood, left by a cavity torn in the back of Daif's skull.
The men in the Imam Ali mosque stood somberly waiting to bury a boy who, in the words of his father, was "like a flower." Haider Kathim, the caretaker, asked: "What's the sin of the children? What have they done?"
In the rituals of burial, the men and their families tried, futilely, to escape the questions that have enveloped so many lives here in fear and uncertainty. Beyond some neighbors, family, and a visitor, there were no witnesses; the funeral went unnoticed by a government that has eagerly escorted journalists to other wartime tragedies. Instead, Daif and two cousins were buried in the solitude of a dirt-poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood near the city limits.
The boys were killed at 11 a.m. today when, as another relative recalled, "the sky exploded." Daif had been digging a trench in front of the family's concrete shack that could serve as a shelter during the bombing campaign that continues day and night. He had been working with Sabah Hassan, 16, and Jalal Talib, 14. The white-hot shrapnel cut down all three. Seven other boys were wounded.
The explosion left no crater, and residents of the Rahmaniya neighborhood struggled to pinpoint the source of the destruction. Many insisted they saw an airplane. Some suggested Iraqi antiaircraft fire had detonated a cruise missile in the air. Others suggested rounds from antiaircraft guns had fallen back to earth and onto their homes.
Whoever caused the explosion, the residents assigned blame to the United States, insisting that without a war, they would be safe. "Who else could be responsible except the Americans?" asked Mohsin Hattab, a 32-year-old uncle of Daif.
"This war is evil. It's an unjust war," said Imad Hussein, a driver and uncle of Hassan. "They have no right to make war against us. Until now, we were sitting in our homes, comfortable and safe."
As he spoke, the wails of mourners pouring forth from homes drowned out his words. He winced, turning his head to the side. Then he continued. "God will save us," he said softly.
At the mosque, hours after the blast, Kadhim and another caretaker prepared Daif's body for burial -- before sundown, as is Islamic custom.
Bathed in the soft colors of turquoise tiles, the room was hushed, as the caretakers finished the washing. They wrapped his head, his gaze fixed, with red and yellow plastic. They rolled the corpse in plastic sheeting, fastening it with four pieces of white gauze -- one at each end, one around his knees and one around his chest.
Kadhim worked delicately, his gestures an attempt to bring dignity to the corpse. He turned Daif's body to the side and wrapped it in a white sheet, secured with four more pieces of gauze. Under their breaths, men muttered prayers, breaking the suffocating silence that had descended. They then moved toward the concrete slab and hoisted the limp body into a wood coffin.
"It's very difficult," said Kadhim, as the men closed the coffin.
On Friday, he had gone to another mosque, Imam Moussa Kadhim, to help bury dozens killed when a blast ripped through a teeming market in the nearby neighborhood of Shuala. The memories haunted him. He remembered the severed hands and heads that arrived at the Shiite mosque. He recalled bodies, even that of an infant, with gaping holes.
"It was awful and ugly," he said. "This is the first time I've ever seen anything like this."
In an open-air courtyard, the men set the coffin down on the stone floor of a mosque still under construction. In two rows, they lined up behind it, their shoes removed before them. Their lips moved in prayers practiced thousands of times.
"God is greatest," they repeated, their palms facing upward in supplication.
In the background, men discussed the war. In the repression and isolation that reigns in Iraq, rumors often serve as news, and the talk today was of carnage unleashed on a convoy taking the body of an 80-year-old woman to be buried in the southern city of Najaf, where U.S. forces are confronting Iraqi irregulars and soldiers.
For Shiite Muslims, Najaf is among their most sacred cities, housing the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, whom Shiites regard as his rightful heir. Tradition has it that the dying Ali asked his followers to place his body on a camel and bury him wherever it first knelt; Najaf was the site. Millions of pilgrims visit each year, and devout Shiites will spend their life's savings for the blessings of being buried in the vast cemeteries that gird the city.
The woman from Rahmaniya never made it. Residents said U.S. forces attacked three cars, one carrying her body. It was another ignominy visited on the city, the men agreed. They insisted that infidels would never enter the city by force of arms. The U.S. siege of the city -- its severity accentuated as rumors circulated -- was an act of humiliation.
"It's a disgrace," said Hattab, one of Daif's uncles.
Hussein, another relative, echoed the words of others. "They didn't come to liberate Iraq," he said, "they came to occupy it."
In his words was a fear that strikes deep into the Iraqi psyche. Many worry that the U.S. invasion is a threat to their culture and traditions. They wonder if an occupation would obliterate what they hold dear, imposing an alien culture by force on a society that, in large part, remains deeply conservative and insulated.
"We don't want the Americans or British here. Our food is better than their food, our water is better than their water," he said.
With the prayers over, the men hoisted Daif's coffin over their heads. They left through the mosque's gray, steel gates and ventured into the desolate, dirt streets awash in trash. Some were barefoot and others wore sandals.
"There is no god but God," one man chanted. "There is no god but God," the pallbearers answered. Bombing on the horizon provided a refrain. The men crossed the street, past concrete and brick hovels, the Shiite flags of solid black, green, red and white flying overhead.
As they approached Daif's house, its door emblazoned with the names Muhammad and Ali, they were greeted with wails of women covered by black chadors. They screamed, waving their hands and shaking their heads. The cries drowned out the chants, as the coffin disappeared indoors. The despair poured out of the home, its windows shattered by the blast that killed Daif.
"My son! My son!" his mother, Zeineb Hussein, cried out. "Where are you now? I want to see your face!"
The men in Daif's family embraced each other, sobbing uncontrollably on their shoulders. Others cried into their hands. From within the house came the sounds of women methodically beating their chests in grief.
In the houses along the street, neighbors and relatives spoke of injustice -- a resonant theme in the lives of Shiites Muslims, whose saints and centuries of theology are infused with examples of suffering and martyrdom.
"We're poor. We can't go anywhere else. What is the fault of the families here? Where's the humanity?" asked Abu Ahmed, a 53-year-old neighbor sitting in a home with three pictures of Ali and a painting of his son, Hussein. "I swear to God, we're scared."
Their talk was angry, and they were baffled.
If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?
In Hussein's Iraq, with a 30-year-political culture built on brutality, some were convinced the Americans were intent on vengeance for the setbacks they believed their forces were delivered in Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. Others, in moments of striking candor, pleaded for the United States and Britain to wage war against their government, but spare the people.
"If they want to liberate people, they can kick out the government, not kill innocent civilians," one relative said. "The innocent civilians are not in business with the government. We're living in our houses."
Before dusk, Daif's coffin was carried from his house. It was set on the back of a white pickup truck headed for the cemetery. As it drove away, kicking up clouds of dirt, some of the neighbors and relatives shouted, "God be with you." Other men waved, a gesture so casual that it suggested the strength of their faith, that they would eventually be reunited with Daif.
Hattab, the uncle, looked on at the departing coffin. His eyes were red, and his face was drawn.
"He has returned to God," he said. "It's God's wish."
Stories copyright 2003 The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.
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