The people of Baghdad , whether Sunni or Shia, live in fear o f ambush and torture. In this incident in Haifa Street the gunman, centre left, is about to kill the man on the ground, who has just been pulled from his car. The man on his knees was shot moments later (AP)
November 25, 2006
Against a backdrop of spiralling violence in Baghdad, The Times persuaded six ordinary Iraqis to visit its bureau to describe their lives. Sunni or Shia, they all had a strikingly similar tale to tell
# Saad was a conscript in Saddamís army when US tanks rolled into Baghdad in April 2003. He deserted, went home and celebrated with his family. "We were dancing. I felt like I was reborn," he said. He dreamt of getting a job at the airport that might let him travel.
Today the eyes of this thin young man brim with tears as he recounts what actually happened.
The Americans launched an effort to clear up the rubbish around the capital. Saad risked the charge of collaboration by taking a job as a street cleaner in the Rashid district of west Baghdad for a meagre $5 a day.
That was dangerous enough, but the work became even more perilous when insurgents began seeding roads with improvised explosive devices disguised as rubbish. Street cleaners were blown up, or denounced as informers when they betrayed the location of such devices. "You canít just turn a blind eye. If you leave them there they might kill innocent passers-by," Saad said through an interpreter.
One morning in 2005, two cars drew up beside Saad and his four fellow sweepers and opened fire. Two of his colleagues were killed. Saad wept. "It was a bitter feeling. It was such a minor and simple job, yet you were not safe doing it," he said.
Saad quit. Four months later his older brother and a neighbour were killed in a random attack by Sunni gunmen as they chatted with friends outside the family home in the Hey Amal district of Baghdad. A few days later gunmen opened fire on the funeral.
For a long time Saad did not go out, but eventually he and two younger brothers had to return to work as street cleaners to support their parents and three other siblings. "My friends told me I couldnít keep going on like that and that I had to go out and start working again." Saad has since found eight improvised bombs. He knows five street cleaners who have been killed, and hears of many more.
Two months ago Saad was caught in a car bomb as he was buying cooking gas at a petrol station near his home. He now has a festering wound on his right hand, and although a neighbour drives him to hospital, it lacks the right medicine. He cannot afford proper medical treatment and cannot work.
He has told his younger brothers to go and work in a safer area of Baghdad and, even though the pay is derisory, he will return to his old job if his hand heals ó because there is no other work and the family has no other income. "Sometimes my brothers and I look at each other when we get home and laugh at what we have earned," he said.
Saadís dreams were dashed a long time ago. "We always say, 'Inshallah, there will be a solutioní, but realistically we canít see any hope." Would he like Saddam back? "Yes," he says. "For many reasons. During Saddam's time I never saw a friend killed in front of my eyes, I never saw neighbours driven out of their homes just for their sect, and I never saw entire families being slaughtered and killed."
Hamid Abed Muhammad
Married with three children
# At 8.30 one morning, gunmen burst into a bakerís shop owned by a friend of Hamid and opened fire, killing six customers and employees. They also killed Hamidís friend and put his body in the oven.
Six weeks ago Hamid watched an Opel saloon pull up outside a bakery opposite his own in the al-Bayia district of south central Baghdad. Four gunmen opened fire, killing one employee and two customers.
Hamid knows of at least seven bakers from his area who have been killed by Sunni "Mujahidin". The reason is simple: Iraq's bakers tend to be Shia, and so are trusted to supply Iraqís predominantly Shia security forces and government offices.
Hamid, a large, gentle man, has received oblique threats himself. He has given up two contracts to provide bread to the National Guard, and stopped baking at the Rashid Hotel inside the green zone.
It is business he can ill afford to lose. He reckons a quarter of his neighbourhood has left the city. At least 12 regular customers have been killed. The restaurants he used to supply have mostly closed. He used to sell 10,000 breads a day, but now sells fewer than 1,000. He no longer dares to open early or stay open late.
Three of Hamidís five employees have quit because of the danger. He would like to pack up as well, but has to support his parents, his wife and three young children. His brothers and sisters have fled to Syria, but he cannot afford to join them.
Hamid will not let his oldest daughter, aged 5, attend kindergarten after another child was kidnapped. He rejoiced at Saddam's fall, but now yearns for the security of that pre-war era. Iraqi society is wrecked, he says. "There is no solution. My children have no future. How can you build a better future for them when youíre struggling to survive each day?"
# Anas has seen more of the world than most Iraqis. As a diplomatís daughter with a degree in business administration, she has lived in China and Morocco. She is bright and vivacious, and her face briefly lights up as she remembers the pre-war days when she and her friends took holidays, partied into the small hours and went to restaurants.
No longer. Over the past two years her life has contracted to the point where she and her husband, Muhammad, are virtual prisoners in their home in the hardline Sunni district of Amiriyah, west Baghdad.
First she had to quit her job at a trading company in central Baghdad because the proliferation of roadblocks, bombs, robberies and kidnappings made the journey to work too dangerous. Then religious Mujahidin began imposing Taleban-like rule on Amiriyah itself.
Anas stopped wearing jeans after hearing of women being killed or beaten for wearing Western clothes. Then she had to give up driving. Soon she could no longer go shopping or to the hairdresser. She stopped wearing make-up in public. She had to start wearing a veil and then an abbayah when she went out. Eventually she felt unable to leave the house at all.
Four months ago Muhammad quit his job as an engineer after the Shia-dominated police raided his Sunni-owned company and abducted three colleagues. Moreover he was risking his life just leaving Amariyah as the last Shias, including close neighbours, had been driven out or killed. That meant anyone entering or leaving the district had to be Sunni and therefore a target for the police or militias.
Today the couple live off their savings. Muhammad goes out to buy food, and they occasionally visit Anasís parents a few streets away, but otherwise they hardly leave their house. They speak to friends only by telephone. Their visit to The Times bureau ó on their second wedding anniversary ó was the first time in a year they had risked staying out after dark. The Dawoods do not know who is imposing this reign of terror, but feel its malign presence all around. They hear constant reports of reprisals against those who do not fall in line. "We feel hopeless," said Anas. "We feel life will become more and more suffocating. We don't know what to do. We feel desperate to leave this country."
Would she bring a child into such a world? "Not if you were realistic and reasonable," she replied. "But itís part of our nature to want to have a baby."
# Only in Iraq could a barber lose his life for trimming a beard, and Qahtan lives with that fear each day.
A year ago he was cutting hair at his open-fronted shop in the Hey Amal district of west Baghdad when an SUV carrying four strangers drew up outside. One got out, called for Qahtan and asked him to shave his beard. Qahtan, who had heard of Baghdad barbers being killed by al-Qaeda extremists for agreeing to such requests, sensed a trap. He said he never cut beards. The man left, advising Qahtan to be careful.
Qahtan immediately closed up and moved to new premises a few streets away. Within two months he had moved again, convinced he was being watched. His present shop is in a side street, but that did not prevent it being wrecked recently by a bomb.
He now keeps an AK47 to protect himself. He has put a sign in his window saying he does not cut beards, though he still cuts those of trusted customers. He refuses to discuss politics or the security situation with any customer he does not know. Instead of staying open long into the night he closes well before dark. He says at least seven of his customers have been killed, two of them butchered by the Shia Madhi militia last week.
Qahtan would like to leave Iraq but his family needs the $60 or $70 he brings home each week. He would like to change jobs, and has a degree, but cannot find a position without a political patron. "I feel helpless. I can't make any long term plans," he says. "I just try to survive each day, but staying at my shop will get me killed. Iím sure of that."
Engaged to be married
# Muhammad Shati has waited four years to marry his fiancťe, Lamyia, but tragedies keep intervening.
They both work for the state telecommunications company, and he had just persuaded her to marry him when the US invaded in March 2003. Months later, when a semblance of calm had returned, they set another date. Then Lamyiaís brother was killed during an American assault near the southern town of al-Nasariyah.
As Iraq descended into lawlessness two of Muhammadís cousins, both farmers, were shot dead during a land dispute in the town of al-Kut, but worse was to follow. On September 6 this year Muhammadís older brother, Mahmoud, 50, disappeared in a Sunni district of Baghdad while driving home from work. Two days later the family found his body at the mortuary. He had been shot through the head and abdomen. His arms and chest were burnt and bruised. His corpse had been fished from the Tigris river.
Muhammad is now struggling to support his brotherís wife and five children, aged between 5 and 20. Some time ago he switched to an administrative job because going out on repair jobs was too dangerous. But that pays only $180 a month, so he is desperately searching for something more lucrative. There is no way he can afford to marry.
Saddam at least offered security, he says. "If you kept away from his regime you felt safe." Today he is close to despair. "Itís grim, itís bleak, but we have to survive this. We have learnt in Iraq to deal with reality and forget about hopes and imagination."
Will he ever get married? "Inshallah," he replies. "Love keeps Lamyia patient. But with the way things are going now, marriage is becoming ever harder to envisage. When I see a wedding car in Baghdad I gaze at them and wonder can it be true that someone is still getting married in the middle of all this?"
Omar, who once played basketball for Iraq, comes from Gazaliyah, a mixed area of west Baghdad racked by bombings, shootings and kidnappings. His brother fled to the Gulf in March. In July Mahdi militiamen seized his two aunts and a 28-year-old nephew. Omar later found their bodies in a grave in Karbala; his nephew's mouth had been slit right up to his ears. A month after that his parents fled to Syria.
For the past few months Omar was living in a hotel in the relatively safe Karradah district where he was installing an internet system. He did not dare go out. He sold his car. For $35 he had acquired a fake identity card because Omar was a Sunni name.
He is now in Sulaimaniyah, in the safer Kurdish north, waiting for his brother to secure him a visa for the Gulf. "Itís very difficult. I will leave my friends, my family, my memories. I don't know if I'll ever come back," he said. "Maybe I'll find a new life somewhere else in a country where I can walk down the street and eat in restaurants like a normal human being."