prospect | After decades of conflict, an Iraqi photojournalist returns home
As I sit on a plane en route to Baghdad, the city where I was born, I can’t help but wonder if I will recognize my country. I was barely 8 years old when I left. I’m 32 now and came back to document how Iraq has changed.
I’ve been to over two dozen countries in my life. But my parents’ house in Michigan is the only place I’ve ever felt like I belong. I hope that I will feel at home in Iraq.
As the clouds lift I see Baghdad and tears fill my eyes. My parents and I left when US sanctions made life in Iraq almost impossible. Although I know the city is safer than it used to be, I still have fears about what I might find there. I wonder what my old quarters look like, what will it be like to see my old school, to visit the graves of my family members?
Will I recognize my homeland? Will my country recognize me?
My pal neighborhoods
The day after my arrival, I visit the three neighborhoods where I used to live. I barely recognize the first of them. The streets look smaller and dirtier. I remember my family had a large garden and a chicken coop, where I collected fresh eggs every morning for breakfast. But now it’s someone’s room. Green spaces have disappeared. The few palm trees that remain are covered in thick dust that browns the green leaves. The air is so polluted that it is difficult to breathe.
The scene is similar in the second quarter. There are fewer good memories here. As the sanctions tightened their grip in the mid-1990s, life became more difficult. Instead of fresh milk, we had powdered milk that we mixed with hot water, and the electricity only worked for a few hours a day.
One by one, my family members started leaving, including my paternal grandparents, with whom we had lived since I was born. We stayed behind and moved to a smaller, cheaper apartment nearby. This was close to a housing block that Saddam Hussein had allocated to Palestinian refugees. They were my neighbors and friends. I understood that they were fleeing difficult circumstances. I never imagined that I too would become a refugee.
The Palestinians are now gone now. I find out that they were evicted from this complex so that it could be turned into housing for the Iraqi police.
As I arrive in the last quarter, memories resurface. The apartment was just a simple two-bedroom unit, but it had a rooftop where I spent many hours playing. It also had a clear view of the school where I completed fourth grade. After we left Iraq, I didn’t go to school for five years as we searched for a new country to call home.
I vividly remember watching through the window of that apartment the biggest fireworks display I had ever seen, before my father dragged me to another room, away from the windows. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want me to enjoy this amazing show. Years later, I learned that it wasn’t fireworks at all. These were air defense systems firing at US military jets in the years when Washington imposed a no-fly zone over parts of Iraq. I often think of the lies parents tell their children to keep them from being afraid, whether in Syria, Ukraine or any other conflict-torn country.
Much of Iraq has changed over the years – destroyed, rebuilt, reinvented. But the places I called home are still standing, as if waiting for me to say a final goodbye.
To honour the dead
I know the hardest goodbye is yet to come.
As I make my way to the Christian cemetery north of Baghdad, the traffic is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – a reminder that the Iraqi capital’s population has more than doubled since the 1990s. I’m here to visit the resting place of my cousin and grandfather.
My cousin’s grave has been neglected. His name, John, is barely visible and the picture hanging on his tombstone is faded and covered in dust. In 2013, at the age of 24, he was killed by an Al-Qaeda affiliate targeting Christians. A few weeks before his death, his parents and brothers and sisters had taken refuge in Turkey. He was about to join them when he was attacked inside a convenience store.
I am the first family member to visit his grave since his death. I turn to the cemetery caretaker, Abu Mohammed, and ask him to restore and clean it. John’s name and photo must be visible so that if his family ever returns to Iraq, they can easily find him.
As I go deeper into the cemetery, I see that some graves have been destroyed. It takes hours to find my grandfather’s grave. What I find breaks my heart.
The door to the tomb appears to have been torn off. I look inside and see my grandfather’s coffin and seven others belonging to relatives, destroyed and surrounded by garbage. My grandfather died in 2005. How long has his grave been like this? Why didn’t anyone take care of it? I ask Abu Mohammad, the guardian for 30 years, if he knows what happened.
He says US troops destroyed the graves as they searched for weapons hidden by the Mahdi Army, a Shia militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr. I don’t know if I will ever get an official answer about what happened.
At least I’ll know I did what I could. Over the next few days, I am working with Abu Mohammed to fill the grave with sand for a proper burial. I had a new sign made with the names of all my deceased relatives. I never got to say goodbye to my grandfather, but now I feel like I finally have some closure.
A place of lasting pain
My last stop, in the western city of Ramadi, is the most important for me. My uncle Saher, who grew up in the United States, was killed here in 2006 while serving as an interpreter with the US Marines. Anbar province was one of the most volatile regions of Iraq at the time; The Marines described it as “hell on earth”.
I stayed in contact with him as much as possible while he was deployed. At this point, I was in Michigan and 14 years old. At only 23, the youngest of his brothers, my uncle was more of a friend to me. We chatted and emailed frequently, and his last message was that he ran into a group of kids playing soccer and was looking forward to coming home to kick a ball with me.
On August 29, 2006, Saher was killed during a combat operation by a car bomb, one of the deadliest weapons used by Iraqi insurgents at the time.
We later found out that he was preparing to go home to surprise his brother at his engagement party. Losing Saher was the hardest thing I experienced as a teenager.
As I arrive at the site of his murder, I am shocked to see that the building where he died is still standing, some of its walls having collapsed due to the explosion. Ramadi, nearly destroyed by a years-long insurgency and brutal occupation by the Islamic State, has been rebuilt with modern structures and smooth roads. Yet this building is still there.
For years I had hoped for another message from Saher, but after seeing the ruins of the building with my own eyes, I am finally able to come to terms with her death.
After the journey
I always felt like the opportunity to know my country was taken away from me. What I knew of my homeland came from books and stories told by my family. A part of me was still missing, yet I always felt attached to Iraq.
I realize now that my return trip was to have the opportunity to say goodbye to the past. I know now that I can never truly return home because the Iraq I lived in no longer exists, destroyed by the US-led invasion and the violence it unleashed. But I found some solace in my people. Despite all they have endured and how few of them have, Iraqis are still welcoming and generous. After 24 years away, they made me feel like I belong.
A graffiti on a house in Baghdad reads: “There is hope”.