A Week in the Death of Iraq
When will I die? That's the question circling in my head when I awake on Wednesday. I'm sweating, as usual. My muscles ache from another long night of no electricity in weather only slightly cooler than hell. As I dress for work, other questions assail me: How will I die? Will it be a shot in the head? Will I be blown to pieces? Or be seized at a police checkpoint because of my sect, then tortured and killed and thrown out on the sidewalk?
I gaze at my wife as she sleeps, her face twisted in discomfort from the heat. What will happen to her if I die?
I'm a dentist in my mid-20s, married to an aspiring dentist. My father fled Iraq after being threatened by both Sunni radicals in al-Qaeda in Iraq (which wanted to recruit him and extorted money for his life when he refused) and Shiite ones in Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (because he is a Sunni). My father-in-law has also been menaced; he will leave the country at the end of this month.
In fact, my wife and I left Iraq in July 2006 and went to Jordan. But I wasn't able to find any work there, so we came back to Baghdad. Now we live here as quietly as possible, keeping a low profile. I don't use my family name anymore. (And I am not using my full name for this piece.)
I walk to my job at a government clinic 15 minutes from my home at the intersection of a Sunni and a Shiite neighborhood. We've had lots of bombings nearby. On my way, I see the hulks of burned-out cars. Barbed wire and concrete blocks line the streets. The ground is strewn with bullet casings. Death is in the air. A car passes me slowly in an alley, my heart beats rapidly and I pray that I won't be kidnapped or asked what sect I belong to.
At the clinic's gate, I greet the guards. (I'm afraid of them; they might be members of a militia. Here in Baghdad, everyone's suspect until proven otherwise.) I sign in and get the bad news: The diesel generator is almost out of fuel. We have enough for about one more day, and my boss thinks it could be a month or longer before the ministry of health will provide us any more.
How can we treat our patients? I ask angrily. My boss shrugs. We were already short of supplies. I feel bad for the patients, some of whom are really in pain, so I work as fast as I can. The clinic is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and we have five dentists and three chairs. Normally, we can take 15 patients a day, but on this day, I treat eight myself.
* * *
I'm proud of my work today as I head home, where, as usual, there is no electricity.
In my neighborhood (and most of Baghdad), we depend on ourselves for power. In most places, there's someone who owns a large generator and sells other residents eight hours of electricity a day. I pay $120 a month for that service. For an additional three hours a day, I use my home generator. That costs me about $150 a month because fuel here is so expensive. We have to wait six to eight hours in line to get any at the gas stations, which close at 6 or 7 p.m. The curfew starts at 11 p.m., so many people sleep in their cars until the stations reopen in the morning. This farce has created a booming black market in which fuel sells for double its official price.
Over lunch, my wife, who has just finished the final exams for her last year of dental school, tells me how scared, bored and hopeless she feels. How long will we stay in Iraq? she asks me. Until one of us dies?