Pride stays intact despite pounding - We're in a dark, dark tunnel and we don't see light at the end of it: Baghdad family

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  • Published 24.03.03

Baghdad, March 24: The melancholy wail sailed across the city and pierced the walls of the middle-class Baghdad home. The sleepless family listened in silence until the mother, her face lined with fear and pain, shook her head.

“Siren,” she whispered.

At that, her daughter jumped up and threw open the door. She ran for the windows next, fearful the blast would shatter them. The son sprinted outside, hoping to spot a low-flying Cruise missile that would send the family huddling, yet again, in a hallway.

And they waited for the bombs. “It’s terrible,” the mother said, as the minutes passed. “We really suffer, and I don’t know why we should live like this.” Her daughter nodded. “I get so scared, I shake,” she said. “I’m afraid the house is going to collapse on my head.”

While the outside world has grown accustomed to detached images of fire and fury over Baghdad, and the government here boasts of victory over the invaders, this rattled family of five in the middle-class neighbourhood of Jihad has watched war turn life upside down. Their world now is isolation, dread and a bitter sense that they do not deserve their fate.

“We’re in a dark, dark tunnel, and we don’t see the light at the end of it,” the daughter-in-law said. The family met privately yesterday with a journalist, without the presence of a requisite government escort and with a promise that their identities would not be published. Over a lunch of Iraqi dishes — pickled mango, kibbe, kufta, chicken cooked with rice, peanuts and raisins — they spoke with unusual candour about politics and war. At times brashly, they discussed subjects that are usually hinted at, as if Baghdad were already in limbo between its past and its future.

“Iraq is ready for change,” the father said. “The people want it, they want more freedom.”

But family members expressed anger at the US government, which has promised to liberate them. They criticised President Saddam Hussein and his dictatorial rule, but insisted that pride and patriotism prevent them from putting their destiny in the hands of a foreign power.

They spoke most fervently of a longing for routine — the most mundane rituals of going to work, sharing dinner on a quiet night and sleeping at a set hour. They predicted little of that stability ahead. From a bloody battle for the capital, to lawlessness, to the humiliation of an occupation, they braced for a future that hardly anyone in Baghdad dares predict. “Everything is turned around,” the daughter-in-law said.

For weeks, she helped prepare the house for war. She and her husband hauled a mattress downstairs, setting up their bedroom in the dining room. The family rearranged furniture so they could sprint to open the windows. Sofas and tables were cloaked in dust cloths to protect them from flying glass and debris. Two rifles and bags of ammunition were propped against the wall.

Scattered around the two-storey house were supplies of a siege. Two tanks, filled with kerosene for cooking in case the electricity goes out. Every pan, kettle and thermos filled with water, in case the pumps stop working. In bag after bag: flour, sugar, rice, beans, powdered milk, biscuits, jam, cheese, macaroni, wheat, rice, flour and cereal. “These will last three months,” the son said, surveying the stockpile.

His wife interrupted: One month, no more. “The men in our family have very big appetites,” she said.

It was a rare moment of levity in a city with little joy. The family gazed out the window at a sky shrouded in black smoke from fires lit by Iraqi forces to conceal targets from US strikes.

The oil pits burned for a second day, turning a sunny, cloudless Baghdad sky into an eerie gauze. In vain, the family hoped the smoke would limit the air assault.

They’d already had enough, they said. The worst so far was Friday’s assault, when US and British forces hurled 320 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Baghdad, wrecking the symbols of Saddam’s rule.

Ten of the missiles landed near their home, shattering the window in the front of the house. The shock waves threw open the refrigerator, tossing its drawers on the kitchen floor.

“They were powerful, really powerful,” the mother said. “They came one after another.”

Baghdad takes pride in its toughness. Residents are fond of listing the challenges history has thrown before it.

“We have 11,000 years of history. I know it sounds facetious, but it gives you resilience,” the father said. His son added, “The bark is worse than the bite.” But in private moments yesterday, the suffering was close to the surface. Friends, they said, had fled to Syria in January, only to run out of money before the war started. Others had headed north to the city of Mosul, hoping to endure the war with relatives. Those who stayed struggle to negotiate the uncertainty. A pregnant friend of the daughter-in-law was supposed to have a Caesarean section within 10 days. But her doctor has vanished.

Hospital after hospital, overwhelmed with the task of preparing for the wounded, has refused to admit her. Another friend who is seven months pregnant has begun taking Valium.

A neighbour said she stuffed cotton in the ears of her two young children every night. She fretted about finding diapers and milk.

When it came to the cause of Iraq’s predicament, family members pointed to Saddam, describing him as rash. He invaded Iran, trapping them in an eight-year war. He seized Kuwait, bringing on the Persian Gulf War and the devastation of sanctions that largely wiped out Iraq’s middle class. After that war, they were ready to overthrow him themselves.

But they bitterly denounced the war the US has launched. Iraq, perhaps more than any other Arab country, dwells on traditions — of pride, honour and dignity. To this family, the assault is an insult. It is not Saddam under attack, but Iraq, they said. It is hard to gauge if this is a common sentiment, although it is one heard more often as the war progresses.

“We complain about things, but complaining doesn’t mean co-operating with foreign governments,” the father said. “When somebody comes to attack Iraq, we stand up for Iraq. That doesn’t mean we love Saddam Hussein, but there are priorities.” A friend of the family interrupted. “Bombing for peace?” he asked, shaking his head.

“I don’t even care about the leadership,” the daughter-in-law said. “But someone wants to take away what is yours. What gives them the right to change something that’s not theirs in the first place? ‘I don’t like your house, so I’m going to bomb it and you can rebuild it again the way I want it, with your money.’ I feel like it’s an insult, really.” Gathered around the table, the family members nodded their heads.

“There are rumblings,” the father said. “But these rumblings don’t mean come America, we’ll throw flowers at you.”

The family is Sunni , a minority from which the government draws its strength. Sunnis perhaps have the most to lose in a post-war Iraq that would undoubtedly devolve authority to Kurds in the north and the Shia majority in the south. The son acknowledged that some Shia friends had a different opinion of the US attack. But Iraqi nationalism — and a history replete with sometimes violent opposition to foreign intervention — could influence the course of the war and its aftermath.

On this day, though, survival was the more pressing issue. By late afternoon, the thunder of bombing broke across the horizon. The son said he heard a rumour that B-52s were on their way, and the family members guessed at the time it would take them to arrive.

They were jittery, flinching at the slightest sounds. “That’s wind, that’s wind,” the father said when the door slammed shut. When the son got up, chair banging the wall, his mother jumped. A few minutes later, he did it again. “Quit doing that,” she said. “I’m so scared. Every little noise.”

Outside, sounds of ordinary life came from the street. A cart passed the house, its horn blowing. It had come to collect trash and refill kerosene tanks for cooking. As the cart passed, the routine it evoked seemed to anger the son. “I should be able to live like other people are living,” he said glumly. “I shouldn’t fear bombs falling on my head, I shouldn’t be hearing sirens. Why should I have to live like this? Why should this be normal?”Everyone looked to the floor, no one saying a word.