NIGHT DRAWS NEAR : The Occupation: A Capital in Collapse
After the Fall, Amal Surrenders Her Illusions
Monday, September 5, 2005
BAGHDAD Second of three parts
On April 10, 2003, the day after the fall of President Saddam Hussein, the veil had been lifted but no one was sure what it revealed.
Conquered no less than 15 times in its history, Baghdad was called free, but the city was a furious storm set down. Emotions -- euphoria, vindictiveness, desperation, confusion -- surged up from the people after years of silence and restraint. The city seemed like a dazed inmate stumbling out of his cell and squinting into the harsh sunlight. Some spoke of anarchy: Armed civilians had begun to crack the monopoly on violence held only weeks earlier by Hussein's government and the American military forces now occupying Iraq. Thousands of residents hurried to plunder everything from trucks and wooden carts to the urinals, copper pipes and electrical wiring of public buildings. Hospitals and embassies fell prey, along with ministries, government offices, Baath Party headquarters and the stone mansions, faced in onyx, of Hussein's lieutenants.
"The hospitals are being looted and no one is protesting! Why does the St. Rafael Hospital have an American tank protecting it? Is it because it is a Christian hospital? What about the Alwiya Maternity Hospital? What about the pregnant women there?" 14-year-old Amal Salman wrote in her journal on April 11. "Why has it befallen Iraqis? Wasn't it enough to loot government offices? Now the hospitals and even homes?"
She asked a question heard often in Baghdad in those days: "What are the Americans going to do with us?" The entry ended succinctly: "God, have mercy on us."
Like others, Amal, her sisters and her mother confronted a city that was collapsing as living conditions worsened. Few parents let their daughters walk alone in the streets, and the members of Amal's family spent most of their time in their apartment, huddled in a stuffy living room, sweating. In time, power was restored, but it remained intermittent, sorely inadequate as temperatures climbed. Phones were still not working, the networks shattered by bombing. Money, each denomination bearing Hussein's portrait, was scarce. Prices soared further, and shortages were everywhere. Overnight, tens of thousands lost their jobs as the bureaucracy disintegrated, some offices in flames.
There was an attitude in Iraq in those months, shared by Amal and her family, that seemed to condemn the occupation from the start. Many in Baghdad had been in awe at American technology during the war. Especially during the conflict's first days, the U.S. assault was as devastating as it was precise. Hussein had ruled for 35 years; the Americans had toppled him in less than three weeks, and relatively few of their soldiers had died in the task. How could these same Americans be so feeble in the aftermath?
"Where is the help that Bush spoke about?" Amal wrote. "No one knows."
Through those days, she stayed far from the gear-laden U.S. soldiers now in the streets, peering at them from her balcony and even returning waves, but reluctant to speak. Her effervescent twin sisters, Duaa and Hibba, were more curious. On a Saturday in the occupation's first month, a tank was parked on the street, and the girls went to say hello to the soldiers, who gave them chocolates. A few minutes later was the crack of gunfire.
"Hibba tried to ask the soldier what was happening. He told her, 'Go! Go!' But Hibba didn't understand the American language. Out of fear for Hibba, he carried her to our building. They are nice, but they are misled by Bush, the dangerous one," she wrote.
Two days later, the twins saw another group of U.S. soldiers in the streets, their desert camouflage melting into the city's palette of browns. "They wrote their names on the children's palms. Hibba's hand had names of Americans soldiers on it. Hibba and Duaa were very happy. They said the soldiers were very friendly and they were delighted with them. Is it true they are good?" she asked.