Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Back to Baghdad

One year after leaving the capital, a reporter returns to a ghost town.
By Ayub Nuri
The first time I saw my country's capital was in April 2003, ten days after the war. I went to Baghdad as a reporter and fixer, and for the first time I met Arabs from every province of the country. As a Kurd from Halabja, I was as much a novelty to them as they were to me.



Everybody was trying to find a job with the US army, foreign companies or news agencies. English-language courses started to open in Baghdad.



The economy was booming, and I remember people saying, "Iraq is becoming the 51st American state."



I shared the dream of many that democracy would come to Iraq, that we were starting a better life.



After the war I travelled to the mass graves in Hilla province. Families were digging and finding the bones of their loved ones. I was sad to see that – yet happy at the same time, telling myself these would be the last mass graves in Iraq, and everyone would now live in peace.



I was a strong supporter of the war, and did not like it when anti-war protesters in other countries took to the streets.



But then I saw with my own eyes American Humvees driving over peoples' cars in Baghdad. I saw with my own eyes American soldiers firing at a building where only civilians lived.



The hopes I shared with so many other Iraqis slowly dimmed as I travelled throughout the country and witnessed growing violence.



I feared I too could become a victim of the rising insurgency. I left Baghdad after strangers asked questions about me in my building and my apartment was broken into several times when I wasn't there.



After moving back to Sulaimaniyah, I visited Baghdad only intermittently.



I recently decided to report from the capital for several weeks to try to understand the new situation there. After the two Shia shrines in Samarra were bombed in February, all I had seen and heard on the news was that bodies were piling up in the streets of Baghdad.



When I returned, I found not the energetic capital I had left, but almost a ghost town where militias roam the streets freely and residents are afraid to carry out even simple daily tasks.



I stayed for one night at the Palestine Hotel, once known as a home for journalists. But it looked nothing like a five-star hotel. After going through a narrow passage between concrete barriers, barbed wire and two checkpoints, I finally got in.



The first thing I noticed was shattered glass and broken windows, the result of two car bombs that had targeted the hotel.



I had been in the Palestine right after the fall of Saddam's regime. There wasn't a free room, no space to park a car, and the lobby was so packed you needed a phone to find a friend there.



It was full of journalists from around the world, the US military, and businessmen. But now I was the only guest in the entire hotel. I used their internet for two dollars and tried to pay with a five dollar bill. The staff did not have three dollars in change.



"We only have one guest a week, so who's going to use the internet?" said a member of staff.



Karada, a predominantly Christian area where Shias and Sunnis also reside, was my old neighbourhood. For two years after the war, the local market was open until midnight.



The first night I arrived in Baghdad after the war, I had visited Karada in the evening and passed by a food store where I ate a hamburger. Now I found the shop closed.



I sensed that the street was getting emptier by the minute moment. I was soon told that the 8 pm curfew was approaching and that in a big city like Baghdad, you close your business early to be able to get home on time.



I went to my two favourite shops where I used to buy fruit and vegetables every day. They were surrounded by construction-work signs. A man told me that the premises were damaged by a car bomb aimed at a Shia mosque across the road.



Unlike before, I did not see families with children coming into Karada to do some night-time shopping. It felt so sad to see the lively area where I had spent nearly two years so empty and dark.



Four of five taxi drivers I met in Baghdad were Shias from Sadr City and the Diyala Bridge area. All four were Mahdi army fighters. They came into Baghdad every day to work as taxi drivers, while at night they vigilantly patrolled their own areas carrying guns.



I invited a friend over for lunch in Mansour, one of Baghdad's wealthiest districts. She is a Sunni who had got engaged to a young Shia man she met in her university days.



The man's family have since called off the engagement, their main justification being that my friend's family is Sunni and they are Shia.



One thing that draws your attention in Baghdad is the enormous number of posters on the walls, left over from the December parliamentary elections. On two sides of one bridge, I counted about 1,000 posters for former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, a popular secularist whose bid to reclaim the premiership failed. "The man of the time. The man of the future," reads the caption under his image.



Posters of Ahmed Chalabi, an architect of the 2003 war who performed poorly in the elections, also abound. He wears a thick coat with a scarf around his neck. "We liberated Iraq and we will rebuild it together," he promises.



Other signs tout the bravery of the Iraqi army. "No one must worry about Iraq. We are here to protect it," they affirm.



But away from the posters and slogans, the shocking reality is that people vanish into their homes in the early afternoon. Many do not have drinking water or electricity. Women give birth at home because of the curfew. Dozens of bodies are found everyday. Garbage piles up everywhere, and buildings are in the same shape as they were the day after the war.



All the hopes I had for a free and democratic Iraq have now faded.



I now just want one thing: for Iraqi leaders to end the political rivalries that have made them forget the Iraqi people who voted for them. I want them to end their hypocrisy - kissing one another on TV while unleashing their militias to kill each other on the streets.



And I want to see my beautiful, historic capital revived, and people in Baghdad to breathe easily again.



Ayub Nuri is an Iraqi freelance journalist and a former IWPR radio trainer.