NIGHT DRAWS NEAR : Baghdad Today: Pessimism and Resilience

An Uncertain Dawn On a Scarred Street

Karima Salman and her daughters watch prayers from the balcony of the Abdel-Rasul Ali Mosque, since destroyed by a bombing.
Karima Salman and her daughters watch prayers from the balcony of the Abdel-Rasul Ali Mosque, since destroyed by a bombing. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

BAGHDAD Last of three parts

On June 23, 2005, a war more than two years old arrived at the busy commercial district of Karrada, where Amal Salman, now 16, lived with her family.

For months, hardly a day had passed without a car bomb somewhere in Iraq; the scenes unleashed in Karrada by the explosion at 7 a.m. were so familiar as to have become routine. Twisted wreckage smoldered, its acrid smoke mingling with the stench of seared flesh. Water cascaded over the fires, then, turning black, mixed with pools of blood. Shattered glass danced along the buckling asphalt like a hailstorm.

Left in the bomb's wake were the ruins of the Abdel-Rasul Ali Mosque, a neighborhood place of worship entered through wooden doors graced by a blue, floral-tiled portico and decorated by calligraphy invoking God, Muhammad and Imam Ali. In quieter months, under lazy fans and chandeliers, Amal, her mother and sisters had gathered there to celebrate the religious holidays of Shiite Muslims.

"I woke up terrorized by the powerful explosion, with my heart beating fast, fearing that someone might have died or been wounded," Amal wrote in her journal that day.

With her sisters and mother, she clambered onto the balcony of their three-room apartment. Surprisingly quickly, police had arrived, vainly trying to direct dazed bystanders, some of their faces frozen in the blank stares of shock. From the third floor, Amal heard the shouts of others -- cries of anger and, more frequently, helplessness.

Minutes later, in a tactic that had become more and more common those days, another car bomb detonated, then another, all along her street as Amal watched. Before the spasm ended, four in all exploded, killing 17 people and hurting many more.

"For a moment, I thought I had died," Amal wrote in a long entry. "Then I realized I was not dead, but I was so scared. In a moment the police car was burned and those inside it were dead, burned. A young man who had only recently announced his engagement died, along with a good old man who lives in the neighborhood, named Abu Karrar, and Khalil the Kurd, who owns a shop in one of the small shopping centers here."

Since she had begun keeping her diary in 2003, Amal had witnessed the events of a lifetime: an invasion and the only government she knew toppled in a few weeks; an occupation; promises of prosperity and the disappointment that followed; an insurgency and the specter of civil war. That Thursday morning was the first time she had seen death.

"It was a true disaster which I will never forget as long as I live. Total destruction, not only in the Karrada district, but inside me, my family and among our neighbors," she wrote. "I was really in pain over this scene which I hope no one would ever have to see."

Residents sometimes remark that Baghdad is cursed by how little is ordinary. It is a city that Karima, Amal's mother, calls forsaken, tempered perhaps only by its resilience -- the city's best and, in these days, most valuable trait. On a hot summer day, as a sandstorm cast the capital in a sickly glow, Amal recovered from the latest disaster. She helped care for her sister, Hibba, whose right arm was torn by flying debris. She traded gossip with neighbors about who lived and who died. She watched police clear the streets, then saw the Americans arrive. A military truck brought bottles of water; people lined up to receive them.

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