BAGHDAD: Two decades after the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein, its war-weary people recount their painful memories of dictatorship, major conflict and years of violent turmoil.
Some talked about the iron-fisted repression under Saddam, others spoke of the traumatic childhoods they endured, marred by bullets, bombs and bloodshed
They look back at the horrors of the Daesh group and the dashed hopes of a brief anti-government protest movement. Some note signs of progress, but few voice any real optimism about the future.
Zulfokar Hassan, 22, was a young child when his mother woke him in the middle of the night so they could hide in the bathroom during a US forces raid in their Baghdad neighborhood.
“The houses around us were collapsing,” he recalled about the battle on Sept. 6, 2007 when US helicopters and tanks targeting Shiite militants killed 14 civilians in the Al-Washash district.
The next day, the seven-year-old boy looked around the rooftop terrace where the family usually slept in the blistering summer months.
“There was shrapnel, our mattresses were burned,” recalled Hassan, now a calligraphy student.
Like many from his generation, he tells his story in the detached tone of someone for whom street battles, car bombs and corpses lying on the road were the tragic backdrop of daily life.
“Throughout our childhood we were terrified,” he said. “We were afraid to go to the toilet at night, no one could sleep alone in a room.”
One of his uncles has been missing since 2006. He left in his car to shop for food and never came back.
In late 2019, Zulfokar joined the sweeping, youth-led demonstrations against endemic misrule and corruption, crumbling infrastructure and unemployment.
“But I stopped,” he said, recounting the crackdown that killed hundreds. “I had lost hope. I saw young people like me dying, and we were helpless.
“Martyrs have been sacrificed, without result and without change.”
Despite this, he said he has no plans to emigrate, like so many other disillusioned Iraqis have. Otherwise, he asked, “who would be left?“
Hanaa Edouard, 77, a feminist and human rights activist, is a veteran of decades of struggle for democracy in Iraq.
Her opposition to Saddam forced Edouard, a Christian and a former communist activist, into exile in the former East Berlin, Damascus and to the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Returning to Baghdad soon after the invasion of March 2003 was a “dream” at first, she said.
But Edouard quickly became disillusioned as she watched US armored convoys rumble through the streets of the occupied country already long battered by painful sanctions.
As the specter of Iraq’s coming years of sectarian bloodshed already loomed, in a country where activists and officials are routinely kidnapped, threatened and even killed, she continued working with her non-government organization Al-Amal that she had founded in the 1990s.
Its stated goal was and remains to “build an independent civil society and a democratic Iraq that believes in human rights,” she said.
Among her victories was the adoption of a women’s quota in parliament which she proudly remembers as “a historic moment.”
Video footage from 2011 attests to her fearlessness. It shows Edouard berating then Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to demand the release of four detained demonstrators.
A man seated next to Al-Maliki is seen trying to calm her — he is the current Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani.
“Fear leads nowhere,” Edouard said, stressing that in today’s Iraq “challenges abound” and castigating the entrenched political parties whose main goal is to stay in power.
She welcomed the anti-government protests that demanded sweeping change and renewal, but said she has no illusions: “There is no democracy in Iraq.”
Alan Zangana was the 12-year-old son of civil servants living in the northern Kurdistan region when his family watched on TV how the US forces entered Baghdad in 2003.
“We stayed up until dawn to follow the events,” he said.
Weeks later, they were stunned to see American soldiers topple a giant Saddam statue in Baghdad before rolling cameras for the entire world to watch, recalled the 32-year-old.
“When the statue fell on April 9, 2003, then we believed it.”
Rare among younger Kurds, Zangana speaks Arabic after growing up in the south of Iraq.
And for the past three years, he has produced a podcast on current affairs and history, pushing the boundaries of free speech.
“The Iraqi elite is locked in on itself for fear of the events of the past 20 years,” he said. “There are those who have seen their friends die, those who have been threatened.”
His guests discuss Iraq’s often tense politics, its rich and ancient culture, and the dire state of the economy, but they must often tread carefully to avoid danger.
“There are a lot of red lines left,” he said, “and that’s not healthy.”
Mother of three Suad Al-Jawhari, 53, grew up during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and has tried to bring more joy to women and children today — by setting up an amateur cycling team. “We lived our childhood in the war,” the Baghdad woman said. “We could not enjoy it, we were deprived of many things.”
A Shiite member of Iraq’s Kurdish minority, she remembers how family friends and neighbors were deported at the height of Saddam’s repression against regime opponents.
When her cousins were jailed, her aunt died of grief, she said.
She experienced the fall of Saddam from neighboring Iran, a majority Shiite country where her family had taken refuge.
In 2009 she returned to her home country and decided, despite the violence, that she would stay there “whatever the circumstances,” because “permanent exile is painful.”
In 2017, the year Daesh were defeated in Iraq, she broke with conservative social conventions and rode a bicycle in public for the first time. “I was afraid of the gaze of society,” she said about those who consider it improper for a woman to engage in outdoor exercise.
She pushed on anyway and founded her cycling team, eager to bring some joy amid the gloom to families like hers.
“Our lives have been marked by 20 years of painful chaos, there is no compensation for that,” she said.
She then voiced what passes for optimism among war-battered Iraqis: “What’s to come can’t be worse than what we’ve been through.”