Ode to Baghdad: Evening walks though a fallen city

An ode to Baghdad: Evening walks though a fallen city
7 min read
09 Nov, 2018
Comment: As Nabil Salih walks the streets of his childhood neighbourhood, he remembers the gardens of bygone era, and those who lost their lives and futures under a western occupation.
'We returned home to find the front gate shredded by shrapnel' writes Salih [Getty]
Lately my days seem to be almost identical.

I take meandering walks through the neighbourhood in the evenings, to combat drowning in a dismal routine of unemployment, inactivity and melancholy.

I stroll through streets where over 15 years ago I played football, hide and seek and flicked marbles on the sidewalks of once-elegant houses with heavenly gardens that impregnated the air with the aromatic scent of Narenj flowers in blossom.

Fifteen years ago. Since then, the friends I once played with have been scattered across the globe, because of a war that stole our futures.

Alone, and agitated by a misshapen reality, my footsteps lead me past familiar houses now split into two, three or even more dwellings, unhappy distortions of their elegant forebears.

The departure of locals, the rapid growth in population and the absence of countermeasure housing plans from subsequent corrupt governments, have distorted the capital's beautiful neighbourhoods, and its gardens have gradually started to vanish.

As for my old family home, we had to sell it following my grandmother's death a few years ago. Now, instead of the ziziphus and the fig tree, the tomatoes and radish once grown in the shade of the palm, a second two-storey house has been built in the front garden where we'd once enjoyed outdoor lunches on spring days, and shared barbecues with friends on summer evenings. Those were the good old days, before the Americans invaded Baghdad.

Memories of war

But not every glimpse of the past is a pleasant memory. In the adjacent vacant lot, just beneath the northern brick fence of the old house, still lie the bodies of four Fedayeen Saddam militants, who died resisting the American occupation in 2003.

I stroll through streets where over 15 years ago I played football, hide and seek and flicked marbles on the sidewalks of once-elegant houses

I was only 12 when the Bush-Blair war drum started beating, but I was no stranger to air raids or siren sounds. One of my most vivid childhood memories is stepping on Iraqi painter Layla al-Attar's controversial portrait of George Bush laid at the entrance of Al Rasheed Hotel. We would run for cover every time the siren went off to announce the American and British airstrikes that lit up the skies of Baghdad in 1998. Al-Attar was killed by a US airstrike in the early 90s.

During the 2003 war, we stayed with relatives who lived in the outskirts of Baghdad. My father thought it'd be safer there, and he was right. While we were away, a bloody battle took place in what used to be a peaceful neighborhood inhabited by Muslims, Christians and others from different ethnic backgrounds. In the aftermath, dead bodies were left on the sidewalks while weapons and unexploded bombs were scattered in the streets.

No playing in the garden

We returned home to find the front gate shredded by shrapnel, the walls and rooftop riddled with bullet holes and all the windows shattered by bombs.

Bombing water treatment facilities, power plants and even even milk factories, America and Britain became notorious for violating international laws in Iraq. In a blatant breach of the Geneva convention, the invaders dropped nearly 13,000 cluster munitions containing 2 million bomblets on Iraq.

A US marine enters the house of an old Iraqi woman in order to search it, 2005 [AFP]

Several of these exploded in our garden, but two duds were lurking in the grass, waiting to be touched, and detonated. Had my father not spotted them, and warned us never to play in the garden, I would've died long ago.

Sectarian violence and terror attacks

To settle their scores with the toppled regime, the then administrator of the US' provisional government Paul Bremer immediately decreed the 'de-Baathification' of Iraqi societyand the dissolution of Iraq's military forces.

The outcome was a rapid escalation in sectarian violence that engulfed the entire country, as thousands of formerly armed men were fired from their jobs amid widespread unemployment, while corrupt politicians lurked in the background ready to settle scores accumulated during years of dictatorship.

Armed men fired anti-tank rockets or sprayed American convoys with machine gun bullets from the windows of our classrooms

At first, ordinary people of different ethnic backgrounds resisted the western occupation with courage and valour. Attacks specifically targeted the American and British forces. But later extremist groups and militias - the likes of al-Qaeda and Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi - hijacked the wave of resistance to kidnap, displace and terrorise local communities through rampant sectarian strife.

I spent most of those afternoons playing multiplayer PC games with friends at a gaming centre in the neighbourhood. The bullets we fired with a click of the mouse in Counter-Strike would resonate in real life when armed men ambushed American convoys on the highway and we'd get trapped for hours before we could run home once the fighting had ended.

On one afternoon an unlicensed sedan pulled over and camouflaged men tossed the bodies of two women in the dumpsters, about 30metres from our front door. They were still wearing dishdashas, and one was laid out in a degrading prostration posture. The corpses remained there for a week,  a putrid odor filling the air before some neighbours dared to volunteer to bury them.

I remember how my mother covered my sisters' eyes with her hands when she walked them to school in the morning to prevent them from seeing the appalling scene that she feared would be seared to their memories for a lifetime.

The way to school

My daily commute to school often resembled something from an action movie. I walked past armed men with heavy machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks parked on side streets, waiting for the perfect moment to attack American convoys that passed the nearby bridge throughout the day.

Our school was by the highway, and sometimes when school had ended and evening had come, armed men fired anti-tank rockets or sprayed American convoys with machine gun bullets from the windows of our classrooms.

The bullets we fired with a click of the mouse in Counter-Strike would resonate in real life when armed men ambushed American convoys on the highway

Once, on a beautiful spring morning, I was strolling to school with my cousin when we entered the main gate and were stunned to see a camouflaged man with an RPG-7 on his shoulder pointing towards the highway. He was standing right in the middle of the school yard. We immediately turned back and headed for home; our school day having lasted just 10 minutes. 

Our dead shall not be forgotten

Today, despite their frequent presence in the headlines, our suffering seems to be insignificant, our cries unheard and our dead, numbers in forgotten statistics. 

But this November, I would like to remember the martyrs of Haditha. On that day in 2005, 24 Iraqi civilians were gunned down at close range by American soldiers who have never served a minute of jail time. We must also recall the innocent souls of the Al-Nisour Square massacre, two years later, where American contractors opened heavy fire without provocation on a bustling square, killing 17 civilians and injuring 20 others.

And finally, I will never forget 
Ahmed Kareem, the 15-year-old boy in Basra that British soldiers forced into a dirty canal until he drowned.

As I wander along the canals of Baghdad at night, I think about these deaths, and all the others that I've seen over the years, all the stories that swirl in my brain from 15 years of war, and I wonder if the killers do so too?

Do Bush and Blair stay awake at night, haunted by the Iraqi boys and girls whose futures they stole, by the children orphaned by the wars they launched? They might have forgotten, but we never will.

Nabil Salih is a Baghdad-based engineer and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @NabilAlMafrachi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.