Friday, December 11, 2009

The past and future of Iraq

From the New York Times blog At War. Among other things, this deeply personal account shows why it will be a very long time before Iraq will be a "normal country:"

‘I Have No Living Friends in Iraq Now’

by RIYADH MOHAMMED

In most parts of the world, the end of the year is a time to reminisce about the best of the past and look to the future with a hopeful eye. Iraq is not like the rest of the world. For me, it is a time to update my death list. The latest entry is my ex-girlfriend.

When I received messages on my cellphone from friends saying, “Please accept my condolences,” I asked one of them, “What happened?” Another message came that explained that my ex-girlfriend was killed in the Dec. 8 bombings in Baghdad.

Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, I had kept a list of every relative or friend killed in violence. As of late 2006, I counted 124 deaths. Suddenly I stopped. No. 125 was my father.

My father had told me a few weeks prior to his tragic death that his phone book was filled with telephone numbers of killed and missing people. He was soon to join the list.

When I look at my personal phone book now, I read: “X: killed in Al Mustansiriya University bombings in 2007. Y: missing in western Baghdad in 2005. Z: killed in the Justice Ministry 2009. It keeps going on like that for the most of the book. The ones who left Iraq were the only ones who survived. I lost my last friend when he went to the United States as a refugee in June 2009. I have no living friends in Iraq now.

If I had continued to keep my death list up to date, it would have included dozens of friends, neighbors, relatives, classmates and work colleagues. The total would run in the hundreds. If I added the relatives of the relatives, the total would be thousands or tens of thousands. Almost all of them were civilians: employees, students, artists, professors, journalists, sportsmen, lawyers, workers or children.

As a man who studied cinema and produced several television documentaries, I often turn to movies help to distract me from the awful reality. Sometimes they help me to describe my status. In the movie “Meet Joe Black,” the angel of death falls in love with his victim’s daughter. Many Iraqis that I met after dozens or hundreds of bombs kept asking, is there any way to stop death’s master plan, whose top priority seems to be claiming Iraqis’ lives?

When I saw the American movie “Final Destination,” I told myself that was exactly what was happening to us. As of late 2006, I had survived deadly bombs about 40 times. Most of them were in Tahrir Square – the most famous public square in Baghdad. I used to pass by it twice a day on my way to work. The square was hit with dozens of bombs in 2005 and 2006. I survived only because I was a few minutes late or early. So often it seems like the cursed plane in Final Destination carries the entire Iraqi people.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9, 2003, felt to me – and to millions of Iraqis – like the symbolic birth of a nation. But instead, another scene was watched by millions of Iraqis in the following years, and Iraqi officials eventually banned photographers from capturing it. It was the scene inside the Iraqi cities’ morgues. In late 2006, it was my turn to visit one of them. Searching for my father, I counted at least 200 new bodies in one Baghdad morgue. There were at least another 200 bodies that had been there a while. It was just like the morgue scene in the movie “Missing.” But the scene that couldn’t be hidden was al-Najaf cemetery. It kept expanding until it became the largest in the world. For millions of Iraqis, it was the death of a nation.

Many felt that I was acting odd when I didn’t cry at my father’s funeral. But I truly lost the ability to feel pain and sorrow. I have read once that many Europeans felt the same emotional drought after witnessing the catastrophes of World War II.

On the other hand, I had the same dream every night for four continuous months: My father didn’t die. I still have the dream, but only once a week now. It is something that could be described as a series of scenes that represent all the happy memories with a lost loved one. But it ends only with a tragedy that will last forever.

For me, now, there are new scenes: the first time we met, the first word exchanged, the first smile, the first flattery, the first phone call, the first date, the first time we revealed that we loved each other and the first hug. But I awake only to remember the last horrific scene: the badly wounded girl being crushed under the feet of the terrified government employees trying to escape death.

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