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After the Fall, Amal Surrenders Her Illusions

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

Reconciling With Reality

Ever so slightly, Amal's writing began to change in those turbulent months. During the war, infused with the government's propaganda, she had spoken with the force of a loyalist. Precocious, the smartest of Karima Salman's daughters and an enthusiastic inductee in her school's Baath Party group, she had competed with her sisters in pledges of fealty to Hussein, even if her diary was more reflective. In April, a week after his fall, as her fellow Shiite Muslims celebrated his demise, Amal still held tenaciously to received views. Hussein was all she knew. "Until now," she said as she sat with her family, "we still say his excellency, the president."

But privately Amal seemed baffled, and she gave voice to her confusion in the diary. A war she dreaded was over and a revolution she did not understand just beginning; she tried to reconcile her experience with reality, as churning, unpredictable and menacing as it was.

"We used to have trust in President Saddam Hussein," she wrote on April 11, two days after his fall, "but now we don't know whom we trust."

Hussein still cast many shadows in Iraq; he would do so for months and years to follow. Almost immediately, the mass graves of those he had persecuted began to be unearthed, the victims numbering in the tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. With their discovery came an accounting of the dead. Days after Hussein's fall, photocopied pictures of men missing or executed and now celebrated as martyrs began to crowd for space in markets, offices and mosques. Their dark eyes, lonesome, stared ahead.

Quieter was the process of demystifying Hussein. His name was still whispered; who knew if danger remained, if somehow he might still be listening, waiting? "No one knows where President Saddam Hussein's whereabouts are, or when he will appear with his army," Amal wrote in an entry on April 16. "They say Saddam Hussein is in Baghdad with a big army, built for the final battle between Iraq and America. No one knows if this is true or not. They are just rumors, true or not."

Secrets soon poured out, and Amal digested the horrors of the government she had once seen as indestructible. Weeks after Hussein's fall, she and her family watched some of the 50-cent videos that flooded the market. They detailed the ornate palaces in a style of kitschy Arabesque that Hussein built -- "all with gold and silver," she wrote -- the gassing of 5,000 Kurds in 1988 in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja, and Uday Hussein's notorious abduction of women whom he fancied.

"Saddam's eldest son, Uday, is the biggest corrupt person on earth," she wrote after watching the videos over two days, their viewing interrupted by blackouts. "Any girl he liked, he would take. No one could say anything because he is the son of President Saddam Hussein. His other son, Qusay, is also cruel, like his father and brother."

The same, she wrote, went for Hussein's other relatives.

"No one realizes they are gone, all of them, forever," she wrote.

An Open-Ended Collapse

The U.S. invasion that toppled Hussein and brought the occupation never had a real name. The Bush administration called it Operation Iraqi Freedom. Predictably, Hussein's own name for the invasion, Marakat al-Hawasim, Defining Battle, was similarly grandiose.

Like many in Iraq, Amal and her family simply called the war the suqut -- "the collapse" or "the fall," a name that probably made more sense than any other. It designated the end of 35 years of pitiless Baath Party rule. In a way, it suggested, too, that another beginning had yet to be inaugurated. Through 2003 and 2004, Marakat al-Hawasim lingered in the wreckage of the government's fall. It remained open-ended, its muddled aftermath as inconclusive as Hussein's fall seemed climactic. For Iraqis, suqut meant an end without renewal, a seemingly endless interim. It was a life imposed, not chosen.

"Everybody is asking about the future, the future of Iraq," Amal wrote in the summer of 2003. "Some are asking where is the future. Others say Iraq has no future anymore. These are all opinions, but no one knows what the truth is."

Amal's diary was becoming more and more tattered. The writing itself was filled with highs, the glimmers of hope that had passed, and the more enduring lows that always seemed to return.

"God is greatest! Praise to God!" Amal wrote in one entry when occasional electricity flickered through their apartment. "There was rejoicing in the whole building, people saying to each other, 'Electricity is back, thanks be to God.' We slept, feeling happy because of the electricity."

And then, a few pages later: "We are now sitting, waiting for electricity to come back. What happened to the promises?"

In Amal's building, the water remained off for months, so the children took turns lugging buckets from a faucet that still worked in the entryway downstairs, near a pool of black, brackish water. For days at a time, the family had no kerosene for cooking. On the occasions it was available, it would sometimes sell for 20 times its prewar rate. Prices for food skyrocketed: Karima groused that cucumbers had tripled in price since the war's end and tomatoes had more than doubled. The family staved off hunger only by way of monthly food rations that were still distributed to each family. Rent was always two months or more late, and the landlord was stopping by the apartment every few days, angrily demanding money.

The pressure was taking its toll on Karima, a widow who was just 36. Her oldest son, Ali, had survived the war, deserting the army before the conflict ended and making his way to Baghdad. But he was jobless. She looked for work at the city's main hotels -- the Meridien and the Sheraton -- but could not make her way through security. She spoke no English; often the U.S. soldiers manning the entrance spoke no Arabic. Their interpreters dismissed her as more riffraff from the street.

As her family's circumstances spiraled downward, Karima, in desperation, went to the family of her late husband's sister along Abu Nawas Street. Karima needed help -- money for rent and food. After fighting and humiliating Karima, the relatives tried to get U.S. soldiers stationed down the street to arrest her, but the interpreter with the troops was a neighbor of Karima's and sided with her. Karima returned home.

"Why would my aunt do that?" Amal asked. "She is our aunt and we are like her children. But the times have changed. Life has no mercy on anyone in this world. Even the same family won't have mercy on each other. Why? Why? I think of this every day. She is the sister of my father. Why did she do all that? Because of money? She is a teacher and she is in no need, but we are. If my aunt has no compassion to us, who will?"

'What Else Can We Do?'

In Amal's writings, the meaning of liberation was personal. Her mind was flowering, her raw intelligence exercised by her consideration of her country's experience. Amal's hard-won wisdom seemed the quietest of triumphs in the long months after Hussein's fall.

In a society that equated wisdom with age, the once-impressionable girl had begun thinking critically, first about Hussein and then the invasion, the occupation and the ambitions that drove the Americans forward. There was an irony in her awakening: She was free to speak, but it was her liberators whom she criticized with her new candor.

"People are exhausted and conditions are harsh. We are now living on false dreams and in a failed democracy," she wrote. "Satellites were banned in the past, and they are now permitted, but who can buy a satellite? Those who have money can buy, but those who don't can't buy anything. This is democracy."

Well-intentioned U.S. officials would often remark that they were there to throw open the gate to a democratic, pluralistic future, but stressed that the Iraqis themselves would have to walk through it, on their own. Time and again -- often oblivious to history and unmindful of the consequences an occupation inspired -- the Americans were frustrated when Iraqis, battered and beaten down by wars and dictatorship, didn't start to walk through the gate.

But the Americans had to take, or at least share, responsibility for raising the people's expectations in the first place. Iraqis might forget the date, perhaps even the person who spoke the words, but they always remembered the pledge uttered on March 6, 2003, by President Bush when he promised that "the life of the Iraqi citizen is going to dramatically improve."

One of those who remembered was young Amal:

"Please, tell us, when are we going to live a life of security and stability? Listen to us, hear us, you people out there, we have cried and shouted. What else can we do?"

Although her entries became less frequent through the year, Amal's writing became clearer, her sentences longer and more complex, her vocabulary more sophisticated. She gained confidence in her ideas as she observed life around her. "They talk about democracy. Where is democracy? Is it that people die of hunger and deprivation and fear? Is that democracy?"

When the damp, sometimes gusty cold of winter arrived, Amal's family sat on mattresses and shabby brown blankets around a kettle of tea, brewed by eldest sister Fatima, and a plate of cheese called Abu Thufira served on a dented metal tray. Pictures of Arabic pop stars lined the walls, along with the usual religious portraits and invocations.

The twins attached stickers of soccer players to their school notebooks. The other children traded copies of leaflets that were circulating in the streets at the time. "An American soldier cries in Baghdad," one of them declared over a picture of an American fighter with his hand held to his eyes. The leaflet was from one of the numerous insurgent groups, and it catalogued the opposition's latest, if fictional, triumphs: three planes and 14 U.S. tanks destroyed on a single day. Another, handed out by the U.S. military, featured a picture of a fighter clad in black with a ski mask, carrying a rocket-propelled grenade. It implored Iraqis "not to permit terrorists or loyalists of the previous regime to take away your new freedom."

Amal's family believed one, not the other. They talked about the fear they had seen in the eyes of U.S. soldiers near their home. They exchanged rumors of desertions in the U.S. military. Conspiracies ran rife.

"All the explosions are their fault," Karima said of the U.S. officials ensconced in the Green Zone. "They are the reasons for the bombing."

"It's apparent," Ali said, as an Egyptian serial, "Alexandria," its volume loud, played on the television. "Only Iraqis die in the explosions. No Americans ever die."

Karima shook her head. "Saddam did not do good things," she said. "He made the people suffer. But there was fear. And with fear, there was security. He was strong."

Ali called civil war a prospect. "It's possible," he said. "It might happen."

Amal interrupted, raising her voice for the first time that day.

"I don't think it will happen," she countered.

Growing ever more confident, Amal, approaching 15, volunteered her own view of the country's confusion. "If I say the Americans are better, someone asks what have the Americans done. What have they done for us? All the Americans have done is bring the tanks," she said. "If I said the time of Saddam was better, they say, what? If he didn't like you, he would cut off your head. He was a tyrant.

"I don't know what to say," she admitted.

A few days later, as she sat near a space heater casting a yellow glow over the room, Amal had thought about the previous conversation.

"People must be optimistic," she said. Sometimes her dark brown eyes were cast to the floor. At moments, though, she looked up, her voice clearer, her ideas more insistent. "There must be hope. Even the Koran says we should be optimistic."

She looked down to the floor again. There was a suggestion of defiance in her words. "If not for my generation," she said, "then the generation that's coming."

Karima sat next to her. She spoke softly, though Amal seemed to hear her. "They're still young," she said, shaking her head. "They don't know what's ahead."

NEXT: Life in Baghdad today

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