‘In 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’
Martin Fletcher, Ali Hamdani, Ned Parker
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 Saddam’s 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 can’t 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 couldn’t 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 — 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.
Saad’s dreams were dashed a long time ago. “We always say, ‘Inshallah, there will be a solution’, but realistically we can’t 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.”
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