First of three parts
In March 2003, a long-awaited war had arrived in Baghdad, and the apartment of Amal Salman, a vivacious girl who would turn 14 that week, was quiet.
She was gathered with her mother, Karima, and her four sisters, all of them reluctant to leave the relative safety of their home, which was off a busy, four-lane street in the working-class district of Karrada. Their three-room apartment overlooked a sagging brick sidewalk and was entered through a dented, rusted steel gate. Rats scurried underneath discarded furniture stacked in the hallway, and wires hung from the ceiling.
Inside, the monotony of wartime isolation ordered their lives. They shared sweet tea in the morning with neighbors who, in turn, shared feverishly traded rumors of an American army that had begun advancing across the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. At night, at the top of each hour, they tried to pick up Arabic-language broadcasts of Radio Monte Carlo to hear what they considered unbiased reports on the war -- the mere mention of southern towns and cities like Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, Basra and Najaf bringing fear to those whose relatives were soldiers or residents there. In silence, they scoured the broadcasts for any detail on fighting near Mosul, in the north, where their brother Ali, a shy and gaunt soldier, was stationed at an antiaircraft battery.
"He wasn't scared," Fatima, at 16 the oldest of Amal's sisters, said proudly.
Her mother shot Fatima a look of disapproval. "Of course he was scared," she snapped. "He's anxious. And we're anxious for him. But God is present."
At times, as they sat together that night, Amal and her smiling sisters broke into a reflexive chant for President Saddam Hussein, reverting to the slogans they had so often heard. They seemed to do this more out of fear or habit than fealty. "God protect Saddam," one of the youngest daughters would begin. The others would join in: "The president is the nation, and the nation is the president." Though they expressed hostility toward the Americans and the war, they seemed to be repeating what they had always been forced to say and believe. Their zeal seemed ersatz; sometimes it simply masked confusion. As so often in Iraq, they were spectators in a drama not of their making.
Of them, the precocious Amal was the most enthusiastic. Still awkward, she would put her face in her hands, her shoulders hunched. Her adolescent giggle concealed a sharp intelligence and curious mind. Like many her age, she was a member of the Baath Party youth group. More than her sisters, she said what was expected, in the language she knew.
"If a foreigner wants to enter Baghdad in peace, we will welcome him like a brother," she said. "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 mother looked on, a little blankly.
'Crying for Everything Precious'
Before the war began, Amal had started keeping a diary, which she tucked in a drawer in the family's apartment. Its passages are a tale of war seen through the gradually opening eyes of a bright but isolated girl. In daily entries -- some chronology, others reflection -- she narrated her family's experiences in her capital and tried to bring some sense to her world, perched as it was between an imminent end and an uncertain beginning.
The diary's binding was soon broken, its tattered cover held together by newspaper. The words were scribbled in the handwriting of a child, the sloping script of her not-yet-confident Arabic. Often, she wrote while lying on the floor, her dark, braided hair falling across her back as she hunched over the paper, her head a breath away from the words she wrote. Her work was illuminated by flickering lights or -- during frequent blackouts -- by a paraffin lamp or cheap candle pouring out black smoke. Her message was not political; during the war, she wrote Hussein's name not once. In her entries, she portrayed the conflict in the simplest, most human of ways, simply as a struggle to survive. She feared war's arbitrary and unappealable verdicts.
She started simply, with a customary religious invocation:
"In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate
"My name is Amal. I have a happy family made up of nine persons: three brothers, who are Ali, a soldier in Mosul; Mohammed, an engraver; and Mahmoud, a student. There are five sisters: Fatima, who helps my mother at home; Zainab; Amal; and my twin sisters, Duaa and Hibba. I am very proud of my mother because she is a great person, who works to bring us food because my father died when we were young."
Amal had been drawn into the preparations that absorbed all Baghdadis before the war had arrived. Her family had little money. For years, her mother had sold gum from a canvas mat in the street and now baked bread for neighbors; her crippled father, wounded six times in Iraq's wars with Iran and the United States, had died during the holy month of Ramadan in 1996 when the brakes of his car went out. Now, prewar inflation was testing their meager budget. A tray of 24 eggs had nearly tripled in price. Bakeries closed, and bread, becoming expensive, was scarce. In those days, they visited the market but found little they could afford. Some of their better-off neighbors had already left the apartment building, seeking safety in the countryside.
"We are supplying ourselves with water, and are scared that the water and electricity will be cut off. Duaa and Hibba are praying to God all the time, to avert war," Amal wrote of her younger twin sisters. "Fatima feels hopeful that war will not occur."
"Praise to God for everything," she wrote, "but I wish there wouldn't be a war."
Gradually, as the invasion neared, all the pieces of Amal's ordinary life began to fall away, one by one. She went to school with her sister Zainab, a reticent 15-year-old, to find only a handful of girls there. So they turned around and went home.
Her life reeling, Amal's mother wept repeatedly, sometimes uncontrollably. Often, at the sight of her tears, her daughters cried too. They looked to her for strength, and her weakness terrified them. Duaa and Hibba, both 11, would read the Koran, the Muslim holy book, for solace. Amal would stay hunched over her diary, recording the scene.
"Eyes are crying for everything precious," she wrote in one passage.
At 5:34 a.m. on March 20, their eyes hidden by the dark during another blackout, they listened to the war's anticipated arrival. Forty cruise missiles were fired from six U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and precision-guided bombs were dropped on a bunker on Baghdad's outskirts where U.S. intelligence officials believed Hussein was hiding. A minute passed before air raid sirens began to wail, and more time still before the staccato answer of antiaircraft fire, skipping across a sky gray with the hints of an approaching dawn.
"Please, God, save us. Our hearts are full of fright," Amal wrote.
Her thoughts turned to Ali. "Please, God," she wrote simply, "protect my brother."
'Give Us Peace and Safety'
Faith for Amal and her family was not a matter of religious zealotry. It was not even piety, really. It gave their lives cadence. Like the Muslim call to prayer, uttered from minarets five times beginning at dawn, religion ordered the day. It spoke with clarity, offered simplicity and served as a familiar refuge in troubled times. Interspersed in Amal's diary are scenes of her neighbors reading the Koran, its passages usually committed to memory. The twins often recited prayers -- little more than pleas for the fighting to stop -- and similar prayers could be heard throughout the building.
"Dear God, give us peace and safety."
In the intimate pages of her entries, Amal wrote the phrase often.
On television, throughout the war, Amal's family and the rest of Baghdad were subjected to a slew of patriotic songs, footage of goose-stepping soldiers and images of Hussein firing into the air. Although U.S. air power faced little resistance in the capital, the propaganda continued, much to the chagrin of American war planners. Yet in Amal's diary, bravado was in short supply. When the bombs fell, she and her family huddled in the building's dim, dirty stairwell, with neighbors who had momentarily set aside the disputes that arise when too many people are forced together in too little space. People traded rumors, often wild speculation, that terrified Amal's family.
"Our neighbor came over," Amal wrote in one passage. "He said they bombed the Civil Defense Command, only about twenty minutes from us. They bombed again at 10:45 and again and again. I turned on the radio. Reports said America bombed two main palaces on the Tigris at 10:50. I sat in the corridor of the apartment with Um Haider and Um Saif, and we talked about the war. Then at 11:10, the raid ended and my mother said, 'Thank God.' Um Haider said, 'Only 10 minutes and they will come to bomb us again.' "
In the war's early days, life was power cuts, air raid sirens, blasts that shook the shoddily built building, and fear. "I am sitting in the corridor in front of the apartment, beside my mother," wrote Amal on one of the worst nights of bombing. "Now, at 9:25, as we are sitting, explosions are becoming stronger and stronger." The narration picks up later, the writing less shaky. "You listen to the radio, but they don't tell the full truth. It is 11:35. Fatima thinks that whether we are dead or alive, we are still the same."
As the days passed, Amal's family asked again and again when the bombing would end and when it would begin again. Nights were sleepless, and as the war dragged on, the air raid sirens became more disorienting. Had that siren signaled the end or the beginning of an attack? It was becoming hard to keep track. Outside, sandstorms, as fierce as they had ever encountered, cloaked the sun in hues of red, brown and sickly yellow.
"The weather is like heaven's anger on the land and the people," Amal wrote.
'Why Is This War Happening?'
Baghdad's fragile, jury-rigged electrical network was no match for the war, and it gave out daily. For hours at a time, Amal's home would be thrown into darkness. Sometimes, the family would pull out lamps and candles, casting the apartment in a soft glow. Time and again, the power would eventually return, a semblance of the ordinary.
On April 3, though, the lights never came on again; the shadows remained as the war built toward its climax. "We are in darkness, the lights are out and we can't see anything, not even the stairs outside the door. No one can see because of the darkness," Amal wrote. "Oh God, light Iraq with your magnificent light."
The next day, the faucets in the kitchen and bathroom splashed water for a few moments. A cough followed, then a wheeze, before the pipes fell silent.
"We went looking for water and found all the taps were dry," Amal said in an entry that day. "Mother went to make some bread at 3:30 and said, God, even the water is off."
The blackout signaled a new chapter in a war that would prove surprisingly brief, at least for the Iraqis, who expected (and feared) so much more from Hussein. Now there was more than just bombing to contend with. In the last week of the invasion, a foreign army had laid siege to Baghdad for the first time since World War II. In their seclusion, Amal's family tried to grasp its progression through sounds, glances, fleeting words on the radio, all of them shrouded. Neighbors popped their heads through the apartment's battered wood door, speculating to anyone who would listen on how far the American soldiers had advanced -- the airport, the Rashid camp, their own neighborhood of Karrada. Abu Saif, a neighbor, predicted soldiers would begin parachuting into a city cloaked in dark.
"Why?" Amal wrote, her questions listed in rapid fire. "What's the fault of those soldiers who were killed? What's the fault of the families of the dead, or their mothers, who must be crying over their sons? Why is this war happening?"
As American troops hurtled across southern Iraq and approached Baghdad's outskirts, the explosions became fiercer. One neighbor suggested the loudest blasts were cluster bombs. "We didn't know what that meant," Amal wrote.
'God Have Mercy on Us'
On April 5, the Americans broke through Baghdad's defenses for the first time. The exploratory foray by 30 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles was brief but devastating. The wreckage smoldered long after the attack: burned-out Iraqi tanks and charred troop carriers were strewn along a thoroughfare.
For Amal, a city that had faced war from the air now, briefly, took on the posture of a capital positioned for battle. The numbers of Baath Party militiamen multiplied dramatically, outnumbering residents in the streets. Members of Saddam's Fedayeen, a poorly trained but particularly zealous paramilitary force, gathered under bridges and mingled with groups of soldiers beneath the canopy of palm trees.
The final days were the bloodiest in Baghdad, as U.S. troops advanced on the city's suburbs. As is their tradition, they deployed overwhelming force, often blurring the line between civilian and military vehicles in their way. Hospitals overflowed with wounded, and emergency rooms were suffused with hordes of flies and the stench of blood, dirt and disinfectant. At one hospital, refrigerators in the morgue were breaking down, leaving corpses stacked on top of one another to rot in a warming sun.
"We heard the sound of gunfire, very close to the building," Amal wrote. "Um Mohamed came and said the Americans are landing in Baghdad."
By April 7, two days after the first U.S. raid into the capital, American soldiers had pushed into the very heart of the city, capturing the Republican Palace. The battle was not yet over, but streets that so quickly had assumed a martial air just as quickly lost the spirit of a fight. The fear that enforced discipline began to fade as the government's end neared, its reach receding inexorably across the longtime bastion of its power.
There were scattered scenes of a functioning bureaucracy, most notably the red buses that still, spectacularly, ran their routes. But more common were sights of a city crumbling. Sandbagged positions that dotted the city's bridges and intersections were deserted, leaving the slogan "death through martyrdom" emblazoned across their front alone in irony. In a rapidly disintegrating police state, the police were nowhere to be seen. Highway signs that once directed traffic to Mosul in the north, where Ali was stationed, were crumpled along the median. Even before it fell, Baghdad began to look conquered.
"Planes flew over our building," Amal wrote on April 7. "Each time, we repeated, 'God is greatest! God is greatest!' We feel scared and tense. It is dark, smoke filling the skies and rising up. God have mercy on us."
Inside Amal's home, the urban battle sowed only confusion. No one knew the precise situation in the city. The family listened to the BBC, which reported the fall of the Republican Palace to U.S. troops. Then they heard Iraqi radio, whose announcers pleaded with Iraqis to join any military unit they could find: "Rise up against oppression and tyranny. Draw the swords of righteousness in the face of falsehood."
"What's going to happen now?" Amal wrote. "We don't know."
The hours that ensued were replete with scenes she had never encountered: Abu Saif told them of burned corpses he saw littering the bridge. Amal heard the roar of American tanks lumbering near her home. Her sister saw a U.S. helicopter in the distance. On the night of April 8, her entries were short, in quick succession. Airplanes passed overhead, blasts shook their building and gunfire could be heard down the street. As midnight drew near, the clouds opened up, and in a trickle, it rained briefly. The water danced across an enervated landscape of browns, tinged in smoke lofted by war and fire.
For a moment, fleeting, it washed Baghdad.
The next day, a sunny April morning, Amal woke up to news on a neighbor's radio. The entry was shorter than most. It ended with just a handful of words.
"And so," she wrote, "Baghdad has fallen to the Americans."
NEXT: Life under occupation
The daily entries soon took a toll on Amal's fragile diary, and she used newspaper to keep its tattered cover together.
Karima Salman and her family descend the stairs in their building by the flickering light of a paraffin lamp. During the height of the U.S. bombing, they lost power entirely.
As eldest sister Fatima, left, watches, Zainab, Hibba (behind the door) and Amal, right, prepare for school. Amal's diary reflects the family's faith and her questioning mind.