When Baghdad Fell: The Shock Still Lingers

By Bassam Sebti
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 10, 2006

BAGHDAD -- We were all gathered in my aunt's living room when my uncle rushed in, shouting, "Saddam's statue is falling."

My aunt hurried to turn on the generator so we could look at the TV to see if it was true. The news came as shocking as thunder to us. "U.S. soldiers are gathering in front of the two main hotels in Baghdad," I recall the anchor of the Iranian Arabic-language station, al-Alam, saying.

We froze. My mother, sister, two aunts, their children and I were gazing at the TV in a daze. "Don't make any noise," my aunt yelled nervously at her 10-year-old son, who was playing with his toy car. He sat down quietly, not realizing what was going on.

As we pass the third anniversary of American troops' entrance into Baghdad, the image remains clear.

Nearly a month before, on March 17, President Bush had told the Iraqi people, "The day of your liberation is near." It was a clear message that we had to be completely ready. The next day, windows were taped, water filled every pot, glass and bottle, canned food filled the storeroom, and bread, eggs, meat, bottled water, tomatoes, cucumbers and other foodstuff filled our old Phillips refrigerator and freezer. The cabinets contained piles of tea, sugar and salt bags. Our house's back yard was lined with propane cylinders and kerosene for heaters and stoves.

My father was in Libya. Like all other Iraqi teachers, his monthly salary was equivalent to $1.50. In 2001, after giving up hope that salaries would ever increase, he decided to leave the country. On the cusp of the war, he called.

"I wish I was there with you," he told me. Silence followed. I was able to feel his tears falling off his cheeks. "Don't worry, Dad. We'll be fine. It's not the first war we've gone through," I said, trying to console him.

A few days before the war started, one of my aunts had called. "Can we come and stay with you till the war is over?" she asked my mother. Without any hesitation, we said yes. As the fighting commenced and the Americans closed in on Baghdad, my other aunt decided to come to our home as well to escape the horrible battle taking place at Baghdad's airport, near her house. "There is a huge [Iraqi] tank in front of the house," she explained. By the time she arrived, we heard that Iraqi soldiers were deserting one after the other.

Darkness was our companion. Electricity was cut off, so we had to use kerosene lamps. Our shelter room was hardly big enough for all of us. But it didn't matter. We were scarcely able to sleep.

On April 4, the Iraqi army sealed our neighborhood. "The Americans are close," a friend and neighbor told me while I was looking at a U.S. warplane dropping bombs and firing rockets from a far distance. "No way out. We'll be dead if we stay," I told my neighbors. Within hours, they all fled. We were one of the only families left in the neighborhood when we finally decided that we had to leave.

I gathered all of our documents and money. My uncle, who had stayed at his house near the airport, came to take us there. "Things are quiet there. The Americans took over the airport," he said.

In his silver 1990 Oldsmobile, he drove along the canal road, which was full of families fleeing the bombings, walking to unknown destinations. Iraqi soldiers lined the road, waiting for the enemy. All the way to my aunt and uncle's house, my mother kept crying. "What's the fault of these poor soldiers?"

At the house, we still couldn't sleep well. The sounds of American tanks moving on the airport road were loud enough to make us realize that Saddam Hussein was gone and Iraq had lost his war.

April 9 was like all the preceding days. We woke up dizzy, unwilling to hear more tanks and bombs fall here and there. Silent, we all gathered at the table, staring at the food but unable to make ourselves eat. My sister sobbed. "I want to go back home. I want to die in our house. This is not life. This is hell," she said, making my mother cry as well.

I could not make words come out of my mouth, but my aunt tried to calm us. "Your life is precious. You should know that you have to live. Do not think of death," she said.

Her words did not work. "Which life are you talking about, Aunt?" my sister said, still crying. "Life with a father away from us? Life with wars and killings? Life with no bright future?"

No one said a word.

When we moved to the living room, our deep depression and sorrow followed. While we were gazing at the TV screen, hearing and watching the news of Saddam's fall, we saw the image of his statue in Firdaus Square, surrounded by a crowd of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers and tanks. I stared in amazement as a soldier climbed the giant bronze figure and covered Saddam's visage with the American flag. My mother raised her hands to her mouth in shock. I finally realized that it was over: Our leader is gone and Iraq is occupied.

The Iranian channel showed live footage of the statue being pulled down and people breaking it into pieces, dragging the head through the streets while onlookers, including children, pounded it with shoes and slippers, an insult in Iraqi society.

Not knowing what would happen next, we prepared to go back home the first thing in the morning.

At 10 a.m. on April 10, we were ready to go. My uncle and I filled the car with gasoline from cans he had buried in his garden. By the time the tank was full, my mother, sister, aunt and cousins were all in the silver Oldsmobile. My other aunt stayed in her house, no longer fearful of bombs.

"There is something wrong!" my mother said as we made our way through the city. "People are running in the streets after the war has stopped." Suddenly, we saw an 8-year-old boy pulling a long carpet from one of the government buildings. "Oh, God! These people are looting!" I said in shock as young, thin, poor people stormed the government and Baath Party buildings.

When we reached Mansour, one of Baghdad's most affluent neighborhoods, the sight of crowds hauling off black leather chairs, tables, computer monitors, air conditioners, ceiling fans and many other things disturbed us. The buildings looted included hospitals and schools. "My God! This is shameful," we all said angrily.

On the bridge to the Adhamiya neighborhood, we were surprised by the cars that were coming at us on the wrong side of the road. "Go back," a driver shouted at us. "The Americans are there and they are shooting."

Then we saw the Americans from a distance. People in the cars around us were waving to them with white cloths. It seemed like a good idea to let the Americans know we were a family and posed no danger. One of my cousins gave me a white T-shirt, and I waved to the soldiers who were surrounding one of Saddam's bombed palaces on the Tigris. They let us pass.

For a short time, things seemed to finally calm down. Then I saw an old man in his sixties reading the Koran with his AK-47 on his shoulder. He didn't seem Iraqi to me. He looked Syrian, perhaps Egyptian. Saddam had opened the borders for foreign Arab mujaheddin to fight the Americans along with the Iraqi army.

When we reached the area near the Abu Hanifa mosque in our neighborhood, we realized the battle was not over yet. American forces were still fighting the Fedayeen Saddam (Hussein's protective force) and the foreign mujaheddin, and we were caught in the crossfire. Swerving into the oncoming lane, my uncle pressed on the accelerator. One hundred yards away, an American artillery shell hit a traffic light and killed the old man with the gun and the holy book. The scene was unforgettable.

My mother closed her eyes and kept them closed until we reached our house safely. Within hours, Baghdad's last resisting neighborhood fell into the hands of the Americans.

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