If you walk the streets of Baghdad at night it is best to move quickly and keep to the shadows. You can often hear gunfire, but whether it comes from people celebrating something or from, as they say here, gangs of “Ali Babas”—thieves—robbing someone, who knows? Groups of men hang out on street corners close to their homes, and boys kick soccer balls about on side streets. All across the city are piles of moldering garbage, and in many places it has been set on fire to get rid of it. Sometimes this flaming rubbish helps you to see where you’re going.
Very few foreigners seem to understand how ordinary Iraqis are still groping in the dark. On April 21, for example, the retired American general Jay Garner, who was appointed by the US administration to run Iraq, paid a visit to Baghdad. An interviewer from a German television station called to ask me two simple questions: “How was General Garner received? What was the reaction of ordinary Iraqis?” The questions seemed so ridiculous that I had no idea what to say without sounding rude or aggressive. So, in what I hope were measured tones, I replied, “There was no reaction, because most Iraqis didn’t know he was here. How could they if there is no television or radio and no electricity? As far as I understand, he visited a few places in the city, presumably traveling in an armored vehicle, so how would anyone know who he was? I think he came with ‘embedded’ journalists from somewhere in the Gulf, but even this I don’t know for sure. One Iraqi asked me if I knew anything about him, and since I’d been in Baghdad for almost six weeks I didn’t.”
I could hear the irritation in the voice of the interviewer, who said, “Well what can you tell us then?” The answer to this was, “Only what I see or hear.”
Now Iraqis are looking backward—and forward. They are looking back to make sense of what has happened to them over the last three decades and forward to divine what might happen to them now. But for many, looking back is the most painful thing of all, because it means looking not just at their own lives—could this or that have been done differently, or should they have gone abroad?—but too often it means confronting their own worst fears. It means finally losing the flickering hope that a member of their family who one day was suddenly arrested and never seen again might just, somehow, still be alive.
At the gates of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad, you can read the legend, “There is no life without the sun. There is no dignity without Saddam Hussein.” But in the empty cell blocks I met forlorn Iraqis wandering about, hunting for people who had disappeared as much as a lifetime ago. The prison is …