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

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.

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