For Post's Baghdad bureau, a shattering day that could have been even worse

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A08

BAGHDAD -- We ignored the first blast, just before 4 p.m. It seemed distant.

A man and his daughter sat on our couch in the Washington Post Baghdad bureau with a picture of his missing son. He wanted to tell me about his family's suffering.

"Don't worry. This is ordinary in Baghdad," the man, Abu Abdullah, told me after the blast.

We carried on.

The next explosion, minutes later, made our windows shake.

We got up. Aziz Alwan, one of our Iraqi reporters, dragged our guests, a colleague from National Public Radio and me to a windowless room behind the kitchen. We thought it was over, and I felt embarrassed that we had forced our guests into such tight quarters.

Then we heard shots and a third, deafening blast. The house, inside the compound of the Hamra Hotel, felt like it was collapsing. We heard screams outside.

Our office manager, Abu Mohammed, walked in, holding his bleeding head. One of Alwan's arms was wounded and his ribs were bruised. He told no one, ignored the pain and pulled others into the room, until he collapsed.

We had no idea who was dead and who was alive. A colleague who had arrived in Baghdad hours earlier was upstairs, changing after a shower, when the bomb went off, flinging her to the ground.

Someone pulled out a first-aid kit and wrapped Abu Mohammed's head. Another colleague, Naseer Fadhil, also suffered a head injury.

We waited together in the dark room, fearing more blasts. Ten minutes later, we walked out. I thought of all the ways this day could have been worse.

Sharp pieces of glass littered the floor. The chairs next to the windows where our reporters usually sit were pierced by glass. The couches where we had been sitting were covered in shards from the large sliding-glass door that opens into our garden.

This day we were lucky. This day none on our team had died.

I walked through the debris of our house, next to the Hamra Hotel, and toward the blast site with my colleague Dalya Hassan. There were no blessings there.

First responders combed through the rubble of an apartment building just in front of the gaping crater where a white Kia minivan had detonated and ripped through the building.

The rocks under my feet had been parts of people's homes. The cars around me were charred. On the street in front of the hotel a severed foot lay beneath a burned-out car. A floral brown blanket covered a headless body.

The balconies at the Flowers Land hotel, across the street from the Hamra, were smeared with blood. Maybe the blood had belonged to the driver of the van that had blasted through our compound. Maybe it had been that of an innocent bystander.

Emergency workers pulled a woman from the rubble on the top floor of the two-story apartment building that was hit hardest by the explosion. They quickly covered her with a white blanket and knotted the end to cover her head. "Stop taking pictures," an Iraqi soldier screamed. "Can't you see she's dead?"

A woman rushed to the building. Her face was covered in blood and her screams filled the air. A group of men had to hold her back. Her family was inside.

"No one understands our pain," another woman screamed.

On this day, the bombings, the killings, the quiet violence that plagues this capital reached inside our compound, protected by concrete walls and guards.

Iraqis often tell me with disgust how the world believes their blood is cheap.

On Monday, even before the blood was washed away, the rubble swept up and the bodies pulled from collapsed buildings, politicians swore the attack would not undermine the upcoming parliamentary elections. But that was of little solace to those who had lost loved ones.

Officials describe these attacks as blips on the radar of a relatively calm city. But this is not a blip. This is life in Iraq. At any moment, your life could end, your child might die and your home could crumble.

On returning to the bureau, I found Abu Mohammed waiting for our staff to take him to the hospital along with our other wounded colleagues. But all the nearby roads were closed. We frantically reached out to U.S. officials for help. American soldiers arrived nearly four hours later. They said clogged streets had kept them from responding sooner.

One of our drivers stood in the foyer with bloodstains on his shirt. He had moved his family near the compound after Shiite militias had threatened him and his kin during years of sectarian bloodshed. "My son is hurt," he told me as he wept in my arms. "Where will we be safe?"

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