A War's Young Witness
Just 13 When the U.S. Invaded Iraq, a Diarist in Baghdad Has Chronicled the Conflict's Evolution -- and Her Own

Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 4, 2009

BAGHDAD The words are as simple as they are profound.

"I was born in war," Amal Salman says today, in reflection and epiphany.

She was 13 when the United States invaded her country, a war of its own choosing, buoyed by grand ambition and perhaps folly. Off a busy, four-lane street in the working-class district of Karrada, she huddled with her large family in the relative safety of their modest home, where rats sometimes scurried down a darkened stairwell.

When The Washington Post first profiled her in those days, she was a vivacious but awkward girl. In public, an adolescent giggle would give way to the brashness of youth, her convictions delivered impetuously. In quieter moments alone, keeping a diary imbued with her intelligence and curiosity, she would turn more contemplative about an imminent end and an uncertain beginning. The "suqut" -- collapse -- was her term for what followed: the fall of Saddam Hussein and 35 years of pitiless Baath Party rule.

"What's going to be the future of Iraq? Can it be good?" she asked in her diary then, the sloping script of her Arabic still lacking confidence. "No one knows."

Now 20, Amal has become calm and demure, tradition dictating reserve. Her words are considered, not impulsive. She exudes the quiet assuredness of intelligence, the realization that the fiercest argument can sometimes belie the deepest uncertainty.

Once wrapped in newspaper, her diary has become a sleek notebook, its pages protected by a plastic sheath and bundled by an elastic band. No longer tentative, her script forgoes a calligrapher's flourish for a stenographer's precision. She still writes at night when, as she puts it, "the noise subsides, and I hear only the frequent roar of the helicopters roaming back and forth, to which I have grown accustomed."

In those pages, penned in the third house her family has lived in since the invasion, the questions she asked as a child have given way to the declarations of an adult, in a nation that has journeyed away from the peaks of invasion, occupation and civil war. In the grimmest, most wrenching fashion, those events were spectacles. Like her country, Amal now grapples with the ambiguity of the ordinary, the equivocation that maturity brings.

"Life has made men forget the meaning of innocence and childhood," she wrote this year.

"Baghdad Has Fallen"

In nearly 1,250 years of history, invaders had vanquished Baghdad no less than 15 times, and Amal, reflexively defiant, witnessed its latest conquest.

"If a foreigner wants to enter Baghdad in peace, we will welcome him like a brother," she said then. "If a foreigner wants to enter as an enemy, every family will go out and confront them, even with stones. If they don't throw rocks, then they'll throw dirt."

Her father was killed in a car accident in the holy month of Ramadan in 1996. For years, her mother, Karima, sold gum from a canvas mat in the street and now bakes bread for neighbors. Of Karima's eight children, the oldest son, Ali, served as a soldier in Mosul; his younger brother, a ne'er-do-well and ex-convict, had joined a motley unit of militiamen patrolling Baghdad. Fatima, the oldest daughter, left school to help care for Amal and the rest of the children: Zeinab, the twins Hibba and Duaa, and the youngest son, Mahmoud.

The war was lost as soon as it began, and on a sunny morning, a neighbor's radio delivered the news to Amal and her family. Her entry on April 9, 2003, was shorter than most.

"And so," she wrote, "Baghdad has fallen to the Americans."

An image of the aftermath of invasion lingers in Baghdad, resonating in the prolonged interregnum between the suqut and the onset of a more routine life. The city felt like a dazed inmate stumbling out of a cell and squinting into harsh sunlight.

Amal grappled with words that seemed shorn of meaning. "They talk about democracy. Where is democracy? Is it that people die of hunger and deprivation and fear?" she wrote in the weeks after the invasion in the diary, which she kept tucked in a drawer.

She struggled with the nihilistic spasm of carnage into which Iraq soon descended, reflected in her family's lives. Her oldest brothers joined the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and blamed for some of the country's worst sectarian bloodletting. Dozens of bombings eventually tore through her neighborhood. Among the wounded was her sister Hibba, whose right arm was sliced by flying debris. "Shrapnel Hibba," schoolmates nicknamed her.

Her brother Mahmoud, just 11 then, recalled the grisliest of scenes: burning metal slicing through the living, a bone jutting through a pant leg, a car's engine resting on corpses. "The dead have become cheap," the boy said dryly.

In that crucible, Amal was no longer the girl who parroted slogans. Reflex had given way to questions, which in turn gave rise to an appreciation of an opposing view. Her words were more nuanced as she was forced to consider her country's experience.

"If I say the Americans are better, someone asks what have the Americans done," she noted then. ". . . If I said the time of Saddam was better, they say, what? If he didn't like you, he would cut off your head." She shook her head. "I don't know what to say."

Prayers and Toy Guns

Over the years, religion for Amal and her family was never piety. Like the Muslim call to prayer, it gave their lives cadence, speaking with clarity, offering simplicity and serving as a refuge in troubled times. It remains so today. "Oh God, if my livelihood and subsistence are in Heaven, do let it come down," reads a prayer hanging from a wall in Amal's house, whose blue paint has faded to reveal the water-stained cement beneath.

If it is in the ground, let it come out,

If it is far, let it come near,

If it is near, let it appear,

If it is little, increase it,

If it is much, bless it,

And make me, by it, avoid sins and wrongdoing.

But like the country, long subsumed in the grandest of narratives -- dictatorship, invasion, occupation and civil war -- the verse vies with the potpourri of influences that a semblance of normalcy has brought. Gone are the utopian promises of liberation. Hidden, somewhat, is the hatred. Quelled for now is the dystopia of violence.

Two of Amal's sisters, Fatima and Zeinab, have married, but the family still gathers almost every day. Zeinab's son Fahd, dressed in a shirt that reads "Tacky is Goofy," waves a play pistol and machine gun, then dances to a song written by a follower of Sadr, the Shiite cleric, whose militia once rampaged through Baghdad.

"A break and we'll return," the lyrics say. "We'll make the blood rise up to the knees."

Two pictures of Shiite saints adorn the wall, near a television stacked with DVDs of movies starring Jim Carrey and Antonio Banderas. Sitting on a soiled mattress covered with a brown blanket, Fatima declares her fondness for Dr. Phil and Oprah.

Smiling, Amal looks down at the floor's buckling tiles. "We already have enough disasters in Iraq," she jokes. "Why do we need to hear about other people's?"

In the worst days of the invasion in 2003, Karima once said something as her daughters sat around her: "It's like we're part of a play on a stage. Life's not good, it's not bad. It's just a play." The mother's words seemed to acknowledge a powerlessness she felt. The script was already written, and she was a spectator, watching the performance.

That sense still pervades Karima's life. Her oldest son, Ali, newly graduated from training in Jordan to work as a security guard, was detained when U.S. and Iraqi forces raided a cafe last year. He was one of 13 arrested, and his family believes it was arbitrary; eight months on, there is no sign of his release. After school, Amal and her younger sisters occasionally visit a church to light candles for him.

"Not even the cockroaches would eat the food in prison," his mother says. "He sees me and starts crying. His hair is turning gray. He's so worn out, so worn out."

Fatima, the oldest daughter and the most bitter, turns angry. "Have you seen anything tangible in this country?" she asks. "Has anything ever turned out for the better?"

No one answers, perhaps out of respect. In a few minutes, though, a levity that has become more common returns. Mahmoud, the boy who once recalled the ghastliest moments of a bombing, saunters in, wearing a jersey of his idol, the Brazilian soccer player Ronaldinho. He celebrates the feats of his favorite team, Barcelona.

Fahd's giggles echo off sagging walls as his aunts chase him around the room. Karima smiles at the 2-year-old, whom she calls "the candle of my life."

"We're going to bring the police to take you," Fatima teases the boy.

"Call the police! Call the police now!" Amal cries. "They'll take you away."

'You Have to Be Optimistic'

Fatima and Amal gathered recently in Fatima's apartment, where the family lived during the invasion. On this day, an American patrol of four Humvees had just stopped by the building, a visit perhaps most remarkable for how commonplace it had become.

"Is it quiet?" they recalled the soldiers asking through a translator. "Peaceful here?"

They shrugged their shoulders, not too concerned.

Four years apart, the sisters are the most committed in their opinions, shaping a sibling rivalry. Fatima longs for childhood, before the suqut. Amal has hope, tempered as it is.

"We want to live like we used to," said Fatima, a newlywed. "There's still fear here. You still don't know who you can trust, whether you can trust anyone else."

Amal stayed quiet for a moment. "You have to be optimistic," she replied. "If you don't have a goal, if you don't have hope, then life has no meaning. It doesn't matter."

"What would be the reason for optimism?" Fatima shot back.

It was an argument Fatima and Amal had had dozens of times over the years. Fatima has never voted in Iraqi elections, nor will she. To her, officials here are hopelessly corrupt. Her brother's detention is symptomatic of a government unrestrained by notions of human rights or due process.

Amal agreed with much of what her sister said, but she was reluctant to settle for answers that felt too easy. After the suqut, the fear she expressed became questions; now, she had the confidence of conviction.

"I thought that in a democracy, you could say anything about anyone in the state, and nothing would happen to you. I thought that was democracy," she said. She smiled at what she judged her naivete. "A person is free," she said. "Free in everything, not just in expressing opinion, but in religion, in belief. Democracy is the basis of all freedom.

"That's my sense of it," she added. "Other than that I don't know."

"There are a lot of things that have to come before democracy," Fatima told her. "The people are hungry, sick. There are a lot of other things we have to worry about."

Fatima has no recollection of assassinations when Hussein ruled, nor does she remember neighbors dismembered by car bombs.

"If you sat in your house and didn't say anything, if you stayed quiet, would anything happen to you?" she asked. "Would anything have happened to our brother?"

Amal shook her head. "Of course, it would have," she said. "This was the basis of life back then: Don't see, don't talk, and don't hear. That was the old regime."

"But no one was killed without a reason or justification," Fatima told her.

"That's ignorant," Amal declared.

"Don't call me ignorant," Fatima said.

"Let Fatima be president," Amal quipped. "We'd be better off."

From Bombs to Exams

As a young girl, Amal began her diary with a simple invocation.

"In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate."

But as she often points out, her life has seen little of either mercy or compassion. She was born soon after Iraq's war with Iran, eight bitter and destructive years that forced a tenth of Iraq's population into the military. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait followed two years later, in 1990. Another war of sorts ensued -- devastating economic sanctions that wiped out Iraq's middle class and ended only after the United States overthrew Hussein. She witnessed occupation, insurgency and sectarian war, sometimes intersecting in anarchy.

"No one has had a chance to catch their breath," she says today.

No one would bestow on Baghdad the title its founder gave his capital: the City of Peace. But the war that once filled the pages of Amal's diary has ended, too.

She complains about school. "The material is tough, the teachers are tougher and the exams are even worse," she wrote in February. "Examinations are like hurricanes. They leave you no room even to breathe." She dreads Fridays and Mondays, days that fill her with pessimism; she enjoys March, the month of her birthday. She grows excited over the prospect of voting in elections this year. "I have a choice," she wrote.

"My choice may be right or may be wrong," she went on, "but the good thing is that in a democracy we can correct the mistake every few years. It is better than nothing."

In her room, she now has a poster of her favorite soccer team, Real Madrid (endlessly irritating her brother Mahmoud). Over her bed, she has smaller photos of actor Brad Pitt and soccer icon David Beckham. Her wall is an advertisement for stalwarts of Iraqi pop: Hussam al-Rassam, Hatem al-Iraqi, Kadhem al-Saher and Majid al-Mohandes.

Even the path she takes to school with her twin sisters, whom she still considers her best friends, has become habit.

"For three years, we have been going this way, but for me, every time I walk along it, it is as if it was the first time. As they say, the road is like a friend, the sweeter and more comfortable, the less you would be bored by it," she wrote in February. "Not a bad theory."

Her family's hardship has not ended. Amal complains about the cost of food and medicine, the lack of charity from her father's relatives, the ordeal of her brother and the corruption of a government that keeps him imprisoned.

"The harshness of life has become a part of my day," she wrote.

But age has brought a wisdom born of acceptance. Far from the heights of expectation and valleys of disappointment, a sober sense of life now colors her landscape.

"I have a rule," she wrote in an entry six years after the suqut. "Let's live 10 days in grief, 10 days in joy. If we laughed more than necessary, then we should cry. Joy and grief, the laugh and the tear are always together, inseparable from each other."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company