Casualty of the War
A few weeks before the war in Iraq began in 2003, I was overtaken by fear. I did not fear the war but that George W. Bush might change his mind about overthrowing the Iraqi regime. I was sad to see antiwar protesters in the streets of Washington and London. "What do they know of our sufferings?" I said.
As an Iraqi, I had lived my life under bombardment. Conflict cost me my family and my childhood: I lost my grandmother and my right knee to rocket shrapnel when I was 4. But I saw salvation in this war.
Bush's 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave the country ended my fears. It meant war was imminent. I was staying at a house just two miles from one of the front lines when I woke one morning to find that the trigger had been pulled during the night.
During previous wars, I had hidden in basements with my family, but I would witness this conflict as a journalist. I entered cities as they fell. I saw hungry and barefooted Iraqi soldiers walking on roadsides. They had thrown away their weapons and uniforms. In Kirkuk, people were dancing in the streets, waving banners that read "Thanks, Mr. Bush." I saw tears of joy in their eyes.
In Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, the emotions were different. I saw several young men at the city gates. They were angry and resentful of the Americans. "Saddam is still our leader," they said. They vowed to take up arms quickly and fight the Americans.
When I first saw American troops in Tikrit, I was amazed at how well equipped they were. Their guns, their tidy uniforms and their tanks spoke of a powerful army. Only a few days earlier, I had given a pair of sandals to a barefoot Iraqi soldier who had deserted his camp under heavy bombardment. When I saw the American soldiers, I realized that there was no comparison between these two forces.
I walked to the palaces by the side of the Tigris River, and I was stunned by the expensive marble and furniture. It was hard to say if this was a dream or reality. I could never have imagined that I would see the inside of one of Hussein's palaces. In one room, I picked up two of his ashtrays as souvenirs, but a young American soldier at the gate wouldn't let me pass through with them. Then he used an expression I had never heard before: "See no evil, speak no evil." He pointed to another gate a few feet behind him, through which I got away with my ashtrays.
I arrived in Baghdad late one evening. It was dark, and the streets were empty. None of the street lamps were working, and there were no signs of life. It was depressing to set foot in Baghdad for the first time and find it a ghost town.
From there I went to Hilla, a city south of Baghdad. I saw hundreds of men and women digging up the mass graves where their loved ones had for years been buried by Hussein's regime. It was a sorrowful reunion with all the bones. But the people smiled because the regime that dug the graves was no more.
Everyone had a story to tell. Some were happy, others angry. But most had this in common: They all had hope for a better life in post-Saddam Iraq. Like me, they thought it would be the last of all wars.
But slowly that hope disappeared. Militia groups roamed the streets, kidnapping became prevalent, and safety was lost.
Three-and-a-half years later, I took the same trip I took at the start of the war.
I found the people who danced in the streets of Kirkuk disappointed and skeptical about the future of their city. Near Hussein's hometown, angry people had kept their vows and become insurgents. In Baghdad, the streets were as lifeless as they were those first days. In Hilla, the smiles disappeared as car bombs created new mass graves.
The war has united Iraqis in their disappointment. I ask myself if our expectations were too high. It is hard to answer. But I look back and realize that the fears that I had four years ago were misplaced: If Bush had changed his mind about the war, things might be better now.
The writer is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.