The Iraq I never knew
Photojournalist Salwan Georges returned to Iraq for the first time since he left in 1998.
As I sit on a plane on my way to Baghdad, the city where I was born, I can’t help but wonder if I will recognize my country. I was just 8 years old when I left. I’m 32 now and I’ve come back to document how Iraq has changed.
I have been to more than two dozen countries in my life. But my parents’ home in Michigan is the only place where I ever felt like I belonged. I am hoping I will feel at home in Iraq.
As the clouds clear, I see Baghdad, and tears fill my eyes. My parents and I left as U.S. sanctions made life in Iraq nearly impossible. Although I know the city is safer than it used to be, I still have fears about what I may find. I wonder, what do my old neighborhoods look like, what will it be like to see my old school, to visit the graves of my family members?
Will I recognize my homeland? Will my homeland recognize me?
My old neighborhoods
The day after I arrive, I visit the three neighborhoods where I once lived. I barely recognize the first of them. The streets look smaller somehow, and dirtier. I remember my family having a large garden and a chicken coop, where I used to collect fresh eggs every morning for breakfast. But now, it’s someone’s room. The green spaces are gone. The few palm trees that remain are covered with thick dust, turning the green leaves brown. The air is so polluted that it’s hard to breathe.
The scene is similar in the second neighborhood. There are fewer happy memories here. As the sanctions tightened their grip in the mid-1990s, life became more difficult. Instead of fresh milk, we had powdered milk that we would mix with hot water, and the electricity came on for only a few hours a day.
The Iraq I never knew
One by one, my family members started to leave, including my grandparents on my father’s side, who had lived with us since I was born. We stayed behind and moved into a smaller, cheaper apartment nearby. This one was close to a housing block that Saddam Hussein had allocated for Palestinian refugees. They were my neighbors and friends. I understood they were escaping difficult circumstances. I never imagined I would become a refugee, too.
The Palestinians are gone now. I discover they were kicked out of this complex so it could be made into housing for Iraqi police.
As I arrive at the last neighborhood, memories come flooding back. The apartment was just a simple two-bedroom unit, but it had a rooftop where I spent many hours playing. It also had a clear view of the school where I finished fourth grade. After we left Iraq, I didn’t go to school for five years as we searched for a new country to call home.
I vividly remember staring out the window of this apartment at the grandest fireworks display I had ever seen, before my dad dragged me into another room, away from the windows. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want me to enjoy this incredible show. Years later, I learned it wasn’t fireworks at all. It was air defense systems firing at U.S. military jets in the years when Washington was enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of Iraq. I often think of the lies parents tell their children to keep them from feeling scared, whether in Syria, Ukraine, or any other country torn apart by conflict.
So much of Iraq has changed over the years — destroyed, rebuilt, reimagined. But the places I called home are still standing, as if they were waiting for me to say a final goodbye.
Honoring the dead
I know the harder goodbye is still to come.
As I make my way to the Christian cemetery north of Baghdad, the traffic is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced — a reminder that the population of the Iraqi capital has more than doubled since the ’90s. I’m here to visit my cousin’s and grandfather’s resting places.
My cousin’s grave has been neglected. His name, John, is barely visible and the photo that hangs on his headstone is faded and covered with dust. In 2013 at the age of 24, he was killed by an al-Qaeda affiliate targeting Christians. Just weeks before he died, his parents and siblings had taken refuge in Turkey. He was preparing to join them when he was attacked inside a convenience store.
I am the first family member to visit his grave since he died. I turn to the cemetery’s caretaker, Abu Mohammed, and ask him to restore and clean it. John’s name and photo should be visible so if his family ever returns to Iraq, they can easily find him.
As I walk deeper into the cemetery, I see that some graves have been destroyed. It takes hours to find my grandfather’s tomb. What I find breaks my heart.
The door to the tomb appears to have been torn apart. I look inside and see my grandfather’s casket and seven others belonging to relatives, destroyed and surrounded by trash. My grandfather died in 2005. How long has his tomb been like this? Why has no one been looking after it? I ask Abu Mohammad, the caretaker for 30 years, if he knows what happened.
He says American troops destroyed the tombs as they searched for weapons hidden by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr. I don’t know if I will ever get an official answer about what happened.
At least I will know I’ve done what I could. Over the next few days, I work with Abu Mohammed to fill the tomb with sand for a proper burial. I have a new sign made with the names of all my dead relatives. I never got to say goodbye to my grandfather, but now I feel I finally have some closure.
A place of lasting pain
My final stop, in the western city of Ramadi, is the most important to me. My uncle Saher, who grew up in the United States, was killed here in 2006 while serving as an interpreter with the U.S. Marines. Anbar province was one of the most volatile parts of Iraq at the time; Marines described it as “hell on earth.”
I stayed in touch with him as much as possible while he was deployed. By this point I was in Michigan and 14 years old. At just 23, the youngest of his brothers, my uncle was more of a friend to me. We chatted and emailed frequently, and his last message was about how he had passed a group of children playing soccer and couldn’t wait to come home to kick a ball with me.
On Aug. 29, 2006, Saher was killed in a combat operation by a car bomb, among the deadliest weapons used by Iraqi insurgents at that time.
We later found out he had been preparing to head home to surprise his brother at his engagement party. Losing Saher was the hardest thing I went through as a teenager.
As I arrive at the site of his killing, I’m shocked to see that the building where he died is still standing, some of its walls collapsed from the explosion. Ramadi, nearly destroyed by a years-long insurgency and a brutal occupation by Islamic State militants, has been rebuilt with modern structures and smooth roads. Yet this building is still here.
For years, I had hoped for one more message from Saher, but after seeing the ruins of the building with my own eyes, I am finally able to make peace with his death.
After the journey
I’ve always felt the opportunity to get to know my country was taken from me. What I knew about my homeland came from books and stories told by family. A part of me was always missing, yet I always felt attached to Iraq.
I realize now that my trip back was about having the opportunity to say goodbye to the past. I know now I can never truly go home because the Iraq I lived in no longer exists, destroyed by the U.S.-led invasion and the violence it unleashed. But I found some solace in my people. Despite all they have endured and how little so many of them have, Iraqis are still welcoming and generous. After 24 years away, they made me feel like I belong.