Baghdad, March 28: The bombs crashed that morning on Baghdad, declaring war. By nightfall, Karima, a mother of eight, took her eldest son to the bus station, sending him off to fight in the north.
Their farewell was infused with the deeply religious idiom of Arabic, phrases at once formal and personal. “God be with you,” she remembered saying, as her son, 20, boarded the rickety red bus, a 30-cent fare for Mosul in his hand. “God protect you.”
Those words, spoken a week ago, were their last.
Her son, a tall, gaunt soldier known for his generosity, travelled five hours to man an anti-aircraft battery in Bartala, about 25 miles north of Mosul. She returned to her three-room apartment, tears running down her face, under the black veil. “A mother’s heart rests on her son’s heart,” she said. “Every hour, I cry for him.”
In a sad landscape of shattered lives, a week-old war only her latest tragedy, the story of Karima is perhaps most remarkable for how unexceptional it is. A short woman with worn hands, she has no money, no work other than selling chewing gum from a canvas mat in the street and the dearth of hope that forces so many in this once-proud city to put their faith and future in God’s hands.
Speaking to a journalist, without the presence of a government escort, she expressed sentiments in Baghdad yesterday that seem confusing, even contradictory. Yet they remain common, colouring the Iraqi capital as it enters its second week of war.
She’s a Shia in a land ruled by a relentlessly repressive government dominated by Sunnis. She takes pride in her son’s service in the army, but deems the war a waste and waits for news she hopes will never come. Her five daughters reflexively break into a chant in support of President Saddam Hussein, perhaps more out of fear than fealty. In more reflective moments, they speak not of defending his government, but of protecting their homes, their country and their faith from a war they consider an invasion.
Most telling are their priorities. They speak not of politics, not of ideology, but of survival.
“God willing, the war won’t last long,” Karima said. “I wish it wouldn’t have lasted one day.”
Sitting on mats lined against the wall, her five daughters — 16, 15, 13, 12 and 11 — giggled, awkward in the presence of a foreigner. Overhead was a portrait of the prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein, and a resonant symbol of suffering in Shia theology. Hanging over a battered refrigerator, its white paint peeling and its rusted handle broken, was a porcelain blue plate that read “God.”
“This war is such a loss,” she whispered. Karima’s life has been a chain of tragedies, but she proved resilient. Her husband died eight years ago. A driver for a Japanese company in Baghdad, he was killed in a wreck when another car lost its brakes. She lost her job as a maid when the Lebanese doctor she worked for left Iraq two years ago.
In January, she was evicted from her home, a garage in which they had pirated running water and electricity. Her eldest son, the breadwinner, joined the army a year-and-a-half ago. Another son, 18, ventured on the wrong side of the law, serving five months in jail for stealing a car. She said the youngest son, nine, is too young to work.
She managed to find another apartment in a run-down building, wires hanging from the ceiling and tattered furniture stacked in the dilapidated hallways. But her rent is about $18 a month, a sum she has no chance of paying. She expects to be evicted again soon.
Now, she said, she’s coping with war and the dread that it’s brought. At first, many of her friends and relatives — those with enough money — fled the city. Her sister-in-law put only her children in a car for Syria, leaving everything else behind.
“It’s true we have to fight for the sake of our nation, land and culture,” she said. But using an Arabic expression that signifies fatalism and helplessness, she said: “There’s no life or power that does not come from God. What God wants will be.”
Then she dealt with spiralling prices, as residents made a run on stores to stock up on bottled water, rice, flour and beans, kerosene for cooking and petrol for their cars. A tray of 24 eggs went from 50 cents to a $1.40. A kilogram of potatoes — a favourite for war-weary Baghdad because of their shelf life - jumped more than three times in a week.
And then there’s the seclusion. Schools were cancelled three days before the war, leaving her children stir crazy in the suffocating confines of three rooms. Karima said she is too terrified of the bombing to go outside.
When the explosions send shudders through their shoddily built structure, she and her children run into the stairwell, joining another family huddled in darkness. “We don’t know what will happen. We don’t know when it will happen,” she said. “There’s no life, there’s no death. Only tension.”