Life in the Inferno of Baghdad

By Terry McCarthy
Sunday, June 3, 2007


Abu Taha, a portly, smiling man with two young children, lives a couple of blocks from our house in Baghdad. I arrived here to cover the war for ABC News last July, and one of the few pleasures I have found is sitting with him on his flat roof, where he keeps pigeons in a series of coops. In the evening, as the sun glows orange on the buildings, he releases them, and they fly wide spirals over the neighborhood, circling the dome of a mosque, ducking below a brace of Black Hawk helicopters headed for the Green Zone, soaring up over the Tigris River before returning for the handful of seeds that he throws down for them. Nowhere else but here, Abu Taha says, does he feel at peace, putting out of his mind the explosions, gunfire and rocket attacks that shake Baghdad. His birds fly free over the deadly streets of this city, unhindered by checkpoints, traffic jams, angry young men with guns and explosives. Only birds can go where they like in Baghdad these days.

Two and a half weeks ago, two of my friends, Alaa Uldeen Aziz, a cameraman, and Saif Laith Yousuf, his soundman, were heading home from our bureau. They were stopped by two cars full of gunmen just 100 yards from Alaa's house, dragged into the street and taken away. We later discovered they were shot dead. We do not know whether they were killed because they worked for an American network, because of their religion or because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, they were innocent victims of the violence that is eating away at this city's humanity: a father of two young girls who still don't understand why Daddy isn't coming home, and a man whose fiancee used to call him every hour on his cellphone to make sure he was okay.

We sat with both their families on a Friday afternoon in a safe area outside their neighborhood, offering what condolences we could. I had to apologize; neither I nor any of my colleagues would be able to attend the funerals, because their neighborhood isn't safe for us to enter. Both families understood and said they would have told us not to come anyway. Left unspoken was the fact that in many parts of Baghdad, to have a foreigner visit your house could endanger everyone there.

Alaa's mother had wanted her son's final resting place next to his father's in a cemetery in central Baghdad. His cousins had to dissuade her: The area is ringed with snipers, and it is too dangerous to set foot in the graveyard now. She wailed at the cruelty of a city that will not even allow her to bury her son.

Danger is everywhere in Baghdad; life here is a continuous series of risk assessments. From the moment people wake up, they have to check whether it is safe to leave the house. Is there an unusual amount of gunfire? Have strangers been seen driving through the neighborhood? Is there something new to be afraid of?

Anything out of the ordinary is cause for fear. A friend who lives in southwest Baghdad says a man recently parked a car on the main street across from his apartment block, then ran away. He was spotted by a butcher, who summoned a U.S. patrol. The troops cordoned off the area and defused what turned out to be a massive bomb inside the suspicious car. The brave butcher was taking a risk either way: He could have had his store blown up, but now he risks a bullet from insurgents for informing the Americans about the car.

The next decision of the morning: Is it safe to send the children to school? Have there been bombs on the school route recently? Do the streets feel secure? Any new fliers that insurgents or militias stuck to the walls of the neighborhood overnight? Most parents I talk to keep their children home at least two or three days a week as a precaution.

Then you have to think about yourself. Is it safe to drive across the city to go to work? Would it be better to take one's own car or trust a taxi driver? This entails a surprisingly complex calculus. Taxis are more expensive, but the gas lines for private cars are long, and gas stations are frequent targets for bombers. Police at checkpoints tend to search private cars more than they do taxis. But Sunni taxi drivers will not go into Shiite areas, and Shiite taxi drivers will not enter Sunni areas. Sometimes crossing the city requires taking two taxis to get through the sectarian frontiers that have sprung up -- unmarked, but known as a matter of life and death to everyone who uses the roads.

The third possibility is to travel by public bus, either the smaller Kias (Korean minibuses) or the larger Tatas (Indian buses). Both have been targeted by suicide bombers; these days, an attendant will normally frisk every male before he gets on board to make sure he is not hiding an explosive vest under his jacket.

Having evaluated all that, the average Baghdad resident is now ready to step outside his or her front door and start the day -- in a city that has become hell on Earth. In Baghdad, as in Dante's "Inferno," you step from one circle of hell into another, each worse than the last. A friend who lives in the eastern Shiite slum of Sadr City was talking to a man who had lost a son in a recent bombing. "I am ashamed to talk about it," said the grieving father. "Why?" asked my friend, trying to console the man, assuming he felt his son's death was somehow his fault. The reply silenced him. "Because my neighbor just lost all five of his children in one car bombing."

Car bombs punctuate life here with percussive malevolence. They have become more frequent since the U.S. troop "surge" began three months ago. Loud enough to be heard across much of the city, they quickly throw up a characteristic plume of black smoke, which comes from the instant vaporization of the tires by the heat of the blast.

The bombers bring dread into such humdrum tasks as shopping. Markets were a favorite target for car bombers until Americans began stopping any vehicles driving into markets during shopping hours. Now the insurgents send suicide bombers on foot instead. Few men I know will allow their wives to go to the main markets anymore.

Baghdad also cannot take comfort in prayer. Sunni insurgents have been blowing up Shiite shrines, and Shiite militiamen have responded by attacking Sunnis leaving mosques. As religion has been hijacked by extremists, public prayer by the moderate has become an impossible indulgence; mosques and churches are now mostly empty.

The constant threat of violence has changed the city's face. Driving around Baghdad now is like navigating a video-game maze; to deter the bombers, 12-foot T-walls better suited to a high-security prison line the streets and the exteriors of many buildings. From the window of a moving car, all you see is a continuous band of gray concrete. The occasional breaks in the walls have crash barriers, tire spikes and men with guns crouching behind sandbags, often wearing black ski masks and sunglasses so they cannot be identified. These guards use mirrors on long handles to look under cars for bombs; they have dogs trained to sniff for explosives, even truck-sized X-ray machines that can examine the inside of a vehicle as it passes by. But still the bombers get through. The inverted T-shape of the walls is designed to funnel the blast of a bomb upward, reducing damage to the surrounding area.

On Saadoun Street in the center of Baghdad, a group of artists recently gathered to compose scenes from ancient Babylon on some of these walls: the glories of 4,000 years ago painted on the failures of today. Even the thickest makeup cannot hide the fear. In the northern part of the city, U.S. troops began building a three-mile-long wall around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah to protect it from a hostile Shiite neighborhood next door. My friend Ahmed, a dentist who has a clinic near Adhamiyah, thinks the wall is a very bad idea. "It will make things worse -- it will make the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites more permanent," he says. "This is not what people in Baghdad want." Ahmed is half Sunni, half Shiite, and the heavy walls of sectarianism are crushing him from both sides.

As Abu Taha's pigeons wheel up into the blue, they remind me of better times in this great city -- a crossroads for Arabs, Turks and Persians, the old capital of the Abbasid caliphs that has produced intellectual and artistic gems as well as unspeakable massacres and destruction. Just as ambitious Americans and others find their way to New York, so, too, have the best and the brightest of the Middle East always come to Baghdad. But today, the skills being honed here are car bombing, sniping, torture and execution -- not playing music or teaching Arabic literature.

Abu Taha's pigeons always find their way home, somehow, and Baghdad will somehow get though this dark period. But it will have lost many good people, Alaa and Saif included. Many ghosts will stalk its streets. War came quickly to this city; peace will return slowly, dragging with it the terrible, guilty memories of what people did to one another here with guns, bombs, meat cleavers, electric drills. Political reconciliation will take years. Cleansing Baghdad's soul will take generations.

Terry McCarthy is the Baghdad correspondent for ABC News.

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