Between 2003 and last month, when I returned to Iraq again, I’ve watched the country I grew up in change beyond my recognition. That’s why I called my book about this period A Stranger in Your Own City. It wasn’t just that the texture of Baghdad changed, the map, the smell etc., the people who lived there changed too. And it became very dangerous, especially during the first phase of the civil war, between 2004 and 2008. There were many ways to die in Baghdad in those years.
THERE WERE MANY WAYS TO die in Baghdad: killed by car bombs; taken out by militias working in tandem with security forces to target Sunnis; targeted by Sunni insurgents killing Shia and those deemed to be US collaborators. Translators and contractors and government employees were under fire. Journalists and even cleaning women working for the Americans were kidnapped. American retaliation meant the fairly indiscriminate killing of civilians; civilians also died at the hands of militias and insurgents when they found themselves in the midst of the fighting—always the collateral damage of war. (Or not so collateral as the WikiLeaks video of the killing of an Iraqi cameraman showed.) In the lawlessness and chaos that engulfed the whole city, criminal gangs overlapped with the insurgents and militias kidnapped doctors and business people.
No one ever knew for sure who was doing what killing. Those who could afford it fled to the safety of Amman and Beirut. The levels of fear, anxiety and violence that Iraqis went through on a daily basis could not be measured or reported. Life was shaped by a cycle of violence and counterviolence, by sectarian politicians spewing hatred from pulpits and TV channels, by the ugliness of American occupation, and the racism of foreign soldiers and mercenaries, and of course by the insurgency.
In the midst of all of that violence, random death and war, Iraqis continued to go to work and send their children to school. Traders sold their wares from carts as they always had and often died in the IED attacks; a day or two later, other traders appeared in their place. People jostled in crowded markets until mortars or car bombs ripped through them . . . When the blood had been washed away, they returned to the same markets again. We were playing a game of Russian roulette. My favourite tea house, consisting of a few metal tables and wooden benches that sat on the pavement under the shade of a large eucalyptus tree, was bombed three times; each time I told myself, it can’t be bombed again, and went back to sit on its rickety benches.
It was not even a year after the toppling of the statue and the regime when people started uttering the unthinkable, that maybe life under Saddam had been better. How could they even think it? Had they forgotten the wars and the secret police and the suffocating dictatorship? The answer was that at least then we knew the parameters of fear, and we knew how to survive. In the midst of this chaos, no one knew anything any more. What were the new boundaries? Not to be seen with the Americans? Not to get a job with the new police and security services? Is it even better not to work at all than work with the new government? Is it worth trying to avoid driving through potential IED sites? But where are those sites this week? And how can you make sure that mortars fired by kids won’t fall on your house?
People were so desperate for anything resembling security that there was general approval for the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, when rumours spread that he had personally chopped off the hand of a captured insurgent and was carrying out death sentences himself. Maybe, they said, here is someone who will finally be able to deliver security.
The reality of life in Baghdad was much worse than anything we could portray in snippets of news and articles. The real misery and bewilderment of the people could never be captured and translated into words. Journalists themselves were regularly getting killed—I woke one morning in Beirut to read about the kidnapping of an American journalist. The translator was shot and killed; there was a picture of his feet sticking out of the back of a pickup truck, an image that will haunt me for the rest of my life. He was a childhood friend, a father, who loved Western music. I was as angry at him as his killers—why did he have to do this dangerous job? The euphoria and excitement of working with Western journalists in the early days of the war was gone, replaced by paralysing fear. As for the son of the prominent Sunni politician who lured them into the ambush, I have never wished for someone to be punished as I wished it for him.
Later, when the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq climbed to 1,000, there was a flurry of coverage in the Western media. A critical benchmark had been reached, they declared, but what was the critical benchmark for the number of Iraqi civilians killed? How many had died by then? To this day there is no accurate number, of those killed through the sanctions, in the war, and in the violence that followed.
Excerpted from A STRANGER IN YOUR OWN CITY by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Copyright © 2023 by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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