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Death in Baghdad

From my room on the ninth floor of the Hotel Rashid in the center of Baghdad I had a view of half the city. Colleagues across the corridor had a view of the other half. On Friday night, March 21, Baghdad came under an intense, spectacular bombardment. Buildings seemed to erupt in smoke and dust and sometimes they caught fire. The night sky was lit up by pink tracer and antiaircraft fire and sometimes the hotel shook when the missiles struck close by. About 350 yards away an antiaircraft unit was firing from the top of a building.

We opened the windows to minimize the risk of glass shattering during the blasts. As I looked out at the crowns of light thrown up when missiles or bombs hit Saddam Hussein’s palaces and ministries, I heard the fizzing sound of a missile. Instinctively I fell to the floor. After the missile slammed into the building behind the hotel, where the antiaircraft unit had been, I jumped up and ran to the room of one of my colleagues on the other side of the corridor. I could hear the sound of shattering glass and falling masonry. A plume of smoke and dust was rising in the air. There were no flames. Then the plume billowed into a thick fog and all I could see were streetlights piercing the gloom. Some of the dust began to swirl through the windows. I could hear men shouting “Allahu Akhbar” close by. About ten minutes later the fog lifted. Most of the building next door appeared to remain intact, apart from a large hole in the side. After the bombardment subsided my colleagues called down for room service, which soon arrived.

What has quickly become apparent in Baghdad is that “shock and awe” does not shock and awe Iraqis. Practically everybody I talk to points out that during the 1980s the Iraqis fought a war with Iran in which as many as one million people died. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and then in 1991 it fought the Gulf War with the US and its allies, losing many thousands of young soldiers, and Baghdad was bombed. It was bombed again in 1998. Ever since the invasion of Kuwait the country has also lived under punishing international sanctions. When missiles blow up Saddam’s palaces and the empty ministries in the center of town, well, they say here, “we are used to it.”

1.

Odd as it may seem, once the bombardments started in the early hours of March 20 the city seemed to breathe a huge sigh of relief. No one knew what the much-vaunted doctrine of “shock and awe” actually meant until it began. After that, people understood that while accidents were possible, ordinary civilians were not being targeted and that the missiles and bombs that were being used on Baghdad were, for the most part, accurate.

In the days before the bombing began people were tense, since they did not know what was coming, or how long the bombardment would last. They also did not know whether the regime would collapse or not, and, if that happened, whether law and order would also crumble. In this case there might be looting by armed gangs. One man told me: “All my friends have been urging me to get a gun, but I don’t want to. If they come and want my car I’ll just say ‘take it.’ I could get a pistol, but they’d have bigger guns than I would, or I could get a machine gun, but then they’d have more ammunition than I would.” He also told me that he knew of several cases where children had been killed playing with guns their fathers had brought home.

Still, in the couple of days before the raids began, shopkeepers in particular were taking no chances. They could be seen hauling their stocks out of their shops, loading them into cars and trucks, and taking them elsewhere for safekeeping. They pulled down their iron shutters. Some, thinking that this was not enough, brought in men with blowtorches to seal their shops shut. Others had their windows bricked up. As the hours ticked away, the city took on an eerie sense of excitement, fear, and expectation. Small groups gathered at street corners to discuss the latest news, and friends and families gathered behind closed doors.

Cars sped through the city’s streets as everyone rushed to finish whatever it was they had to do. By midday on March 19, almost all the shops had shut and armed men, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, were out on the streets. In Saddam’s parliament his deputies declared their undying love for him while, perhaps inadvertently, Baghdad’s pop radio station played the theme song from the movie Titanic. A thick haze hung over the city, left by an overnight sandstorm.

When I needed to change money that night, I found that most of the moneychangers were closed, their shops firmly shuttered and bolted. The Iraqi dinar was in free fall anyway, having lost a third of its value against the dollar. One man was clearing out his papers, his ledgers, and his equipment from his office with his staff. “No more money!” he said. “Are you English? American? German?” When I said British the man walked with me out onto the stoop of his shop, which lies on one of Baghdad’s main shopping streets. “In two days,” he said, and he dramatically lowered his arms, as if to indicate a collapse. He then said simply, with a broad smile on his face: “Democracy!”

Perhaps this is the first time in the last three decades that he had dared to utter such a word to a foreigner, a stranger, and in front of other Iraqis whom he did not know. “From today,” he said, “no more fear!” He was not alone. Suddenly I found other Iraqis opening up. They were discussing how long the bombing would last and whether anyone was willing to die to defend Saddam Hussein. I met one man who said he expected Rashid Street, where many Baghdadis go to shop, to be renamed Bush Street after the war. At a café another pretended to show me the kitchen. There he took out a note he had scribbled, slipped it into my hand, and continued discussing the kitchen. The note read: “Bush the father liberated Kuwait. Bush the son will liberate Iraq. Bush the grandson’s duty will be the liberation of the world.”

A former military officer told me that “the fear stopped two days ago.” He said: “If the Americans are clever I hope they can finish the job in seven days, but it may be more. I just hope no one is stupid enough to try and fight. We just want this over and done with.” A few days later, when it became clear that the regime of Saddam Hussein was not about to collapse, I found fewer and fewer Iraqis prepared to talk like this. The fear had returned. By contrast, ever since, I have found more and more people talking of their fear of the bombs and their anger.

2.

Since the war took such a long time coming, most people in Baghdad had plenty of time to prepare for it. Between half and two thirds of them rely on government food rations to survive, but in the last few weeks the authorities issued several months’ worth of food in advance. Still, the food shops that remained open on the eve of the bombing were doing good business. People were also buying candles and batteries. The price of bottled water tripled.

Many of those with the means to do so have either left Baghdad or sent their families away. Some have gone to stay with relations in the provinces. The Jordanian border has been closed to all but a lucky few, and in the days before the bombing started the Syrians also turned back Iraqis but have left the frontier open for foreign Arabs and Muslims coming to fight for Iraq. The roads to Amman and Damascus are also dangerous now. Several civilians are reported to have been killed by air strikes.

Waiting for a war to begin, you still have to do something. On the Friday before the bombing started I went to Baghdad’s secondhand-book market. The traders complained that business had been bad for two or three months. With little money to spare, middle-class Iraqis come here to browse and sell their books for cash. “A house without a library is like a desert,” a book merchant called out. Among the books for sale I found Arabic engineering manuals and a 1959 English-language text on laws relating to education in Yugoslavia.

At the market, Sayeef, a shoeshine boy, was looking for work. There are eight in his family and he has had to stop going to school to help support them; his father was crippled in a car accident. Sayeef looked healthy enough for a ten-year-old, but then he said he was fifteen. Malnutrition has become common in Iraq since 1991. I asked if his brothers and sisters were frightened of the war that was coming and he replied: “Yes, very scared, but I try to calm them down. I try to convince them that nothing bad will happen.”

The next day there was a parade in support of Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands marched through the city in a tightly organized show of support for the leader. Paunchy and middle-aged, mustachioed, armed, and sweating, Baath Party members led the crowds in chants of loyalty to Saddam. Sturdy matrons with pistols carried bazookas on their shoulders down the main boulevard. Some of the women stamped vigorously on a burning effigy of George Bush.

Thousands of schoolchildren and students marched by, all of them with their books, as though they had suddenly been told about a change in the day’s schedule. They were followed by a group led by long-haired, sword-wielding Sufi dervishes. They were said by an official to be “religious” and were chanting, “We will give our blood and soul for Saddam.” How many will actually give their blood and soul for Saddam is, even now that the war has begun, one of the questions that everyone wants to know the answer to. “You know,” said one grave young man, “many people here really do love Saddam.”

On the sidelines of the march I met Yusuf. He was a driver and had been working with some journalists. He asked me where I was from and this time, with no hesitation, I said France. He spoke good English and had spent some time at school in the United States. He said: “George Bush is a bad man and will kill civilians, so I will do the same. Believe me if any Iraqi civilians are killed by Americans, or British or Spanish, I will try and kill. First will be their soldiers, but, if I can’t find any, then their civilians will do, now or in the future, even in ten years.”

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