IRAQ: Memories of the 2003 fall of Baghdad
By Usama Redha in Baghdad
My recollections of the beginnings of the Iraq war in 2003 and how life has changed since then:
I had lost all hopes of changing my life, getting a real job or at least leaving Iraq because I was not a Baathist. I used to stay awake until 3 or 4 am listening to the radio reports and news about the possibility of toppling Saddam. The regime jammed the radio stations and the broadcasts often faded out amid static and hissing.
I had many officers’ friends. We used to talk about the situation. It was the favorite question for Iraqis: Will Bush strike or not? Was he serious? Day after day the situation was escalating, people were preparing for a long war. They were buying plastic jugs to store water, dates, fuel, and all the necessary things to avoid leaving their homes. They dug wells behind their houses, but the ground water was considered a carrier for typhoid, cholera, and amoebic dysentery.
Military preparations started up but it was not obvious like in 1991. I was afraid that I would be recruited to fight the American forces. I decided to leave Baghdad for a village in Wasit province. I tried to convince my uncle who owned a small restaurant to take his family to a village there. He listened to me and we prepared for our trip. We were afraid that the regime would not let people leave Baghdad because they wanted to use them as human shields.
DAY OF DEPARTURE
There were 14 of us. Most of the passengers were women and children. We squeezed in a minibus. On our way, we saw that the Iraqi army had dug trenches and ditches around Baghdad.
We reached our destination, and we could barely move our legs. The place was a small village called Chabab on the banks of the Tigris river. The village consisted of small houses. Many of the residents kept sheep and cows. Some of them owned fish farms. The village belonged to the Lami tribe. A sheik named Abu Hamid invited us for a lunch of chicken and fish. They couldn’t afford to slaughter a sheep for us, which is the traditional greeting for guests.
Baathists visited the village and asked the men to enroll in the Quds Army, a paramilitary force. Most of the men spent their days at the local Baath party headquarter training for war. We hid ourselves in homes. At night most of the men gathered at Abu Hamid’s salon and spoke about the situation. They recounted their memories of the 1991 Gulf War, including stories about dogs eating corpses.
When the war started, there were no signs of shock and awe. Razzaq, one of the villagers, was very angry. He complained: “They ordered us to fight, but with what? … I told one of my colleagues my rifle is not working. Shall I fight the Americans with a stick?”
The mood in the village was frantic when people heard that the commander for southern Iraq was Saddam Hussein’s cousin Chemical Ali. Some families worried about their sons on the front. For the early part of the war, the village still received electricity and we could watch the news on a black-and-white television. Iraq TV was broadcasting songs and statements about Saddam.
The men started to desert the Quds Army and to hide themselves in the village. The village quickly became a safe haven for soldiers and officers who did not want to fight. After a week, more people sought sanctuary in the village from Baghdad and Kut, the capital of Wasit province.
On April 9, we were watching the television and we could not believe our eyes when Saddam’s statue was torn down. "It’s over, Saddam is over," a woman was crying and her eyes filled with tears. “No more wars and no more serving in the army,” Razzaq said, and he threw his military documents on the ground.
THE VILLAGE NOW
After the war, I often thought about the people in Chabab and wanted to visit them and repay their kindness. In the summer of 2007, I stopped there on my way back from Basra. The houses were built with cement now, as opposed to the poorer quality clay they had used when I stayed with them.
“The village is not good for city women,” said Umm Mohammad who received me and my wife in her house. She used to worry about her son Hassan, who loved a girl in Kut and was unemployed, but now he had a job in the city and had won his love’s hand.
Now everyone had a big car and no one tended sheep or cattle. There was plumbing, so women did not go carry water in jugs from a well. Everyone had an air conditioner now and no longer relied on fans to keep cool. I asked about Abu Hamid and learned he had died two years earlier. The sheik’s widow said his sons were studying at university or had found jobs in Baghdad. I left the village hoping to come again.
Recently, I was visiting a friend in Baghdad when I noticed a man staring at me. I turned to him and asked if he was Razzaq. He answered with a smile: “Of course I am. Who else could I be.” We hugged and started to chat. The first time I met him, he wore a traditional tribal robe and was unemployed. Now, he worked at the Ministry of Agriculture and wore a sharp black suit. The times had changed.