At the beginning of February, I returned to Iraq for the first time in four years. The night before I left, I could not sleep. And I couldn’t stop crying. Was it sadness for my country? Was it fear? What exactly, I don’t know. I just know I was worried, nervous and could not control my tears. In the morning, I realized that up until that moment, I had never been afraid of doing my work.
I have traveled to many places that are considered “dangerous” by any standard—from the besieged Sarajevo, to DR Congo, to Iraq, to Sudan. I am so acquainted with the sound of bullets that I can sleep in the midst of gunfire. But that morning was different. That morning I actually felt fear and it was fear of dying. I never minded the concept of dying. We all die one day and if I have to die, I thought to myself, then I would love to die in my own homeland so that I may be buried next to my mother, next to my grandmother, and next to all the women in my family who are buried in our mausoleum in Iraq.
My plane landed at Baghdad International Airport around the same time as a flight from Iran. Iranians, Iraqis, Americans, Irish, British were all swirling together in the crowd that was arriving in Iraq…a land so confusing… so destroyed… so tired.
Ali, one of our staff, met me at the airport and rode with me over to my hotel. I can’t describe the pain of watching such destruction of one’s home country…the death and displacement of so many Iraqis, and now the news published by the Ministry of Planning that suggests there are two million widows in Iraq among a total population of 27 million. It is one thing to read about the changes in a place you once called home, seeing it up close is almost too much to bear.
My colleague who picked me up turned to me and said: “Zainab, remember the basketball hoop your family put in the cul-de-sac in front your home? Al-Mahdi militia has been using the basketball pole to execute Sunnis.” I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. “Zainab,” he continued, “every day I saw tens of bodies lying in front of your house after being executed. Every day there was a body hanging from the basketball pole. Your home has turned into an execution center.” I was going to throw up. All my childhood memories were in this house. Memories of laughter, tears, sorrow, fear, love and joy have all been violated.
As we hit a traffic jam, Ali explained to me that it is because they are having a car race nearby. He turned to me with a smile, “things are improving little by little. We have hope.” I couldn’t help but wonder about that hope. How real is it? How strong? It could be like the pretty paintings on the walls surrounding the highway for security reasons…. Paintings of Bedouin life style, Arabian heroes riding their horses, pretty women with headscarves, without headscarves, sunsets, all kinds of scenes painted on a concrete wall built for security reasons. I wondered if Ali’s hope is like the wall in its solidness or like the painting in that it is simply layer of covering the concrete wall?