x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Ten years after US invasion, Iraq’s youth seek out a normal life

Young people's hopes and dreams were woven with fear before Saddam Hussein's downfall. After his fall came a tense freedom and then the nightmare of sectarian fighting. Alice Fordham reports from Baghdad

Noof Assi, left, who works for an NGO and presents a late-night radio show, would rather talk about Iraq's future than dwell on the past.
Noof Assi, left, who works for an NGO and presents a late-night radio show, would rather talk about Iraq's future than dwell on the past.

BAGHDAD // "Today's show is about the man of your dreams," announces the young woman with curly hair and chunky spectacles, leaning into the microphone in the studio of Baghdad's Al Mada radio station.

The producer, chair-dancing in distressed denim, smoothing a pomaded quiff, puts a caller through.

"How would you want the man of your dreams to be?" says Noof Assi, the presenter.

"Attractive, lovely, romantic," murmurs the voice.

"Ah," says Noof. "You want him to cry when he sees a sunset?"

Everyone giggles.

"Not that much!" says the seeker of dreams, at which point the producer cuts to a blaring pop song, as the next callers are queued up to talk with Noof and her handsome co-presenter, Ameer Thames Jafar, on their nightly hour of music and banter.

This is Noof's life: she is 23 years old, works in a non-governmental organisation helping refugees and presents the radio show at night. She is a university graduate in fine arts and a witty dissector of universal concerns such as the ideal attributes in a boyfriend.

Ten years on from the US-led invasion of Iraq, Noof would rather talk about the future than the past. But like millions of young Iraqis, what happened after the first bombs struck Baghdad early in the morning on March 20, 2003, has shaped every aspect of her adolescence.

Her hopes, dreams and frustrations were woven with fear before the invasion, the tense freedom that followed it and the horror of a city turned nightmarish with sectarian splits and raw, bloody fighting. Whether she and her generation can lead the lives they want after the horrors they have seen remains a difficult question to answer.

Noof remembers clearly the initial days of the invasion, when American forces and their allies headed to the Iraqi capital from the north and south, seeking to end Saddam Hussein's regime. Living in the Yarmouk neighbourhood, where many military officers had homes, her family was terrified they would be bombed.

"We were nine people, all sleeping in our shoes," she says. With her elder sister and her mother, she camped out with her cousins in the dining room of her uncle's house. Her sister carried a rucksack with their documents and money. Noof's bag contained card games, a teddy bear and a diary. Her father and brother had long fled Iraq, fearing arrest by Saddam Hussein's regime for political dissent.

The family clustered round a radio, turning the dial to listen to faint international broadcasts. Every station was talking about the coming battle for Baghdad, except the Iraqi one, which played the music of the Egyptian legend Um Kalthoum. When the bombs came, they shook the house and broke the windows, but none of them were hurt.

Things moved fast. On April 9, Saddam's statue was brought down by US forces in Firdous Square, and the image was beamed round the world. Most people in Baghdad had no idea it was happening until the news came on the radio.

"My uncle did not want to believe it," Noof recalls. "He didn't support the government, but he didn't like the US invasion."

But soon there were American soldiers on their streets, and nearby, an enormous poster of the tyrannical leader was covered in graffiti, the words reflecting the pent-up rage of many Iraqis towards their longtime leader: "You son of a dog, you failed. You're never going to hurt us again."

It took months before the freedom to criticise Saddam felt real.

Elation turns to fear

Sitting one recent evening in one of Baghdad's new cafes, with a hustle of people passing outside, Noof Assi drank tea with a friend, Zein Al Abidine, 25. He, too, remembers the moment the leader was gone and a friend who did not believe him.

"He said: 'Can you say something bad about Saddam Hussein?'" recalls Zein, talking rapidly between draws on a water pipe. But gradually it sunk in, and that summer of 2003 had optimistic moments. American soldiers sat with Iraqis in ice cream parlours in the heat, watching television as the first satellite broadcasts reached the isolated country.

The mood did not last. Zein, who now works in software engineering, is from a Shiite family and lived in the largely Sunni neighbourhood of Dora. Security had worsened after US authorities dissolved the Iraqi army, and sectarian attacks were becoming common.

In early 2006, he saw for the first time a man killed in front of him, a university professor assassinated in the street by a man who smiled and wagged his gun at the teenager before driving off. He remembers being numb, forgetting what happened for days.

"After that, I saw it three times," he says. "The last one was my father."

By the end of the year, Zein's family had given up hope of ever feeling safe again in their home. They were moving their their belongings to the Karada district when a car full of armed men drew up outside the house and fired five shots into Zein's father as he loaded a moving van.

Neighbours gathered but would not touch the body for fear that they too would be targeted. Eventually a Sunni uncle came who dared to take away the body of his brother-in-law. The family escaped the neighbourhood, leaving everything behind to be stolen.

"All of the photo albums. I didn't have a picture of the wedding of my mother and father," Zein says.

Dead bodies become routine

At about the same time, across town, Noof Assi was fighting daily with her mother. She was adamant that she be allowed to keep going to school.

The closest school, the only one she could safely travel to, was located on a fault line between Sunni and Shiite-dominated areas of the Iraqi capital. Men were being slaughtered and dumped in the street, gunmen shooting at anyone who tried to take away the bodies.

The first time there was a corpse outside the school gate, Noof was horrified.

"Something changed in me. My whole body was shaking, and I said to my mom: 'Does he have a wife, a mother looking for him?'" The next day the corpse was gone, and there were two more in its place.

Soon the sight of decaying remains became routine, as did avoiding the dogs who developed a taste for human flesh.

The sound of street battles and exploding bombs were a daily occurrence. Once, a gunfight spilled into the classrooms.

"It looked just like an American action movie," she says. "There were trees shaking from the bullets."

Still, Noof went to school every day. She wanted to graduate and go to art school. Fearing that the next year might even be worse, she wanted to keep attending while she could.

'I didn't want to run away'

Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis were fleeing the country and Zein Al Abidine's mother, now poor and living in her father's house, decided to take her children to Syria and apply there for asylum in Canada. They were granted the documents in less than a month but abruptly, her son decided he was not going.

"I didn't want to run away," he says. "I felt if I ran away, I would never find myself. I would lose my character and personality."

The family returned to Baghdad, and Zein got a job while studying for a university degree. He and his mother pooled their salaries, sold some land and built a house in Karada. "A small home, a beautiful one," he says.

Gradually, security improved. American soldiers withdrew from the cities. Life returned to the streets of Baghdad, albeit slowly and hobbled by intermittent explosions and the hundreds of checkpoints that remain in the streets. One day, in 2009, Noof Assi accidentally broke her parents' curfew and stayed out after six.

"It was dark, but places were open and I thought, "Yeah! I can go out at night,' even though it wasn't really night," she says.

Focused on the future

The stories of Noof Assi and Zein Al Abidine and their suffering and determination are echoed by many others in Baghdad. In a city where some areas now, on a good day, are buzzing and fun, young men in a pool hall count off on their fingers the number of close relatives they lost to the fighting.

The students from the ballet school tell, giggling, of how it was tough to practice their pirouettes and pliés because the glass in their mirrored halls was always shattered by explosions. Young men explain how they put aside aspirations and became the breadwinners of fatherless families.

But overwhelmingly, people prefer to focus on what might happen next. Can they live happy lives? "The show must go on," Noof says. "There were crazy moments, but when there are crazy moments, you seek a normal life."

Others are more cautious. "I find we are not normal, really," says Zein. "Part of the time, our life stopped." But, he adds, one day he would like to write a novel about the war.

"I'll talk about life, love, family, civil war. Because life has wonderful and beautiful stories," he says.

"I hope for the future. I am not looking to the past."