Violence In Iraq

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Christoph Bangert/Polaris, for The New York Times

Ansam Sadak holds a photo of Amir Ali Hamza, 8, her nephew, who was killed Sunday in a car bombing in Baghdad while watching cartoons.

May 6, 2005
Iraq’s Violence Sweeps Away All the Norms

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 5 – The gardenias are blooming in Baghdad, but Hala is not allowed out in the garden to cut them. A 16-year-old high school student, Hala was kidnapped for a day in the middle of April and has not set foot outside her house since.

In the violence and chaos that has smashed so many lives across Iraq in recent weeks, there are quieter stories of people coping with the relentless barrage of car bombs and kidnappings that have become so much a part of the daily rhythm of life: the man who grows anxious in his car, after his wife was shot to death in traffic; the schoolchildren who no longer play hopscotch in a neighborhood frequently hit by suicide bombings; the young kidnapping victim no longer permitted a life outside her home.

The violence follows people to the market, to work and to school.

It has become part of the public consciousness, surfacing even in television ads and newspaper cartoons.

And Thursday was no exception, as the surge in violence that greeted the new Iraqi government a week ago continued with three separate attacks on the security forces in Baghdad that left at least 26 dead. [Page A13.]

"It is difficult but you get used to it," said Naba S. Hamid, a biology professor at Baghdad University.

"It has become part of our daily lives. Just like eating, sleeping, there is bombing," she said.

The violence leaves its traces on almost everyone, altering daily habits and ripping up routines, from shopping habits to routes to work and school.

As the bell rang in the Baghdad Secondary School for Girls on Wednesday in the relatively calm district of Karrada, drivers waited outside the gate to whisk their 12- and 14-year-old clients to their homes. Just two days before, a car bomb exploded less than a mile away, killing nine people.

Ola Qusay Ali, a bright-eyed 12-year-old in a blue uniform and headscarf, said her parents paid 40,000 dinars, about $27, a month for a driver to take her and her 6-year-old sister to and from school every day. The girls live in Dawra, an area in southern Baghdad that has been plagued by attacks, and since last year they have not been allowed to play outside, putting their favorite game of tuki, a form of hopscotch, off limits.

Athir Haddad has been subject to bouts of nerves since his wife, Amal Maamlaji, was killed while waiting in a traffic jam in September. He has learned to flick on the radio and read small items in the newspaper to calm himself down. When that does not work, "I hope, just hope," he said. "I am not a religious person."

Mr. Haddad and his family returned to Iraq in 2001 after living abroad for decades, mostly in Libya. Once back, his wife became a consultant in a government ministry, plunging into work on women’s rights.

"She filled the house," he said, his eyes brimming. "She was very energetic – discussions, jokes. She was more than a wife and a mother. Now, I just feel lonely."

Others have given up driving altogether. Ms. Hamid, the biology professor, stopped driving her car – an expensive BMW, which marked her as a kidnapping target – when the violence began, and now takes taxis. She used to take her car to do the shopping at several stores, she said, but now walks to the nearest store and carries her food home on foot.

Even taxis are not safe. Bushra al-Obeidi, a lawyer who has worked with women detainees from Abu Ghraib prison, said she stopped taking them after a driver mugged her two weeks ago. Now, Ms. Obeidi, one of several women interviewed for this article at the Iraqi al-Amal, a women’s rights group, pays a private driver to ferry her around the city, once spending almost $20 in hourly fees while an oblivious American researcher interviewed her about the prison.

For Hala, a Sunni, the kidnapping changed everything. On April 15, a group of armed men in jeans and T-shirts stopped at her gate while she was waiting for her math tutor. They forced her into their BMW, handcuffed her, took her to a trash-strewn field and beat her. Later, they realized they had taken the wrong girl and returned her to her home, warning that they would kill her if she went to the police.

Since then she has not been outside, even for a haircut, or to pick the flowers so thick in their garden in the late Baghdad spring. Her friends are not allowed to visit because her father, Mustafa, does not want to be responsible for their safety. She no longer goes to school. Several family friends are tutoring her to help her parents reduce the new cost of home schooling.

"She has stopped going past this door," said Mustafa, a computer programmer, motioning to their wide, heavy wooden front door on black metal hinges. He and his wife, Fayha, who is also confined to the house, asked that their last name not be used for fear of retribution by the kidnappers.

The accident, as the family calls the kidnapping, has forged strange new patterns in their daily lives. Mustafa has to do all the shopping, including purchases of tampons and women’s clothes. Fayha can no longer walk to the outside gate to see off a relative. She misses meeting a neighbor’s eye by chance, while sweeping her walk.

"I feel like someone’s choking me, like I can’t breathe," said Fayha, whose foot is in a cast from being thrown to the ground during the kidnapping. "Like I’m in jail with no jailer."

In many ways, the family is lucky. Hala was returned relatively unscathed, and has not been treated as a pariah in her neighborhood the way some young girls, particularly those who have been raped, sometimes are after kidnappings. Hala’s aunt said she had heard about a girl who was killed by her family to preserve its name. There have been more than 30 kidnappings in the family’s upscale neighborhood in the past year, Mustafa said.

"On the outside, everybody looks normal," he said, sitting on his living room couch and smoking. "But on the inside they are very scared. Most Iraqis feel this way."

Car bombs seem to be the weapon of choice for the insurgents. They are usually aimed at army convoys, but often kill more civilians than soldiers.

Eight-year-old Amir Ali Hamza was watching cartoons in his grandfather’s kitchen in the western neighborhood of Al Khadr on Sunday, when a suicide car bomber attacked an American Army convoy outside, setting off an explosion that shattered all the windows. Amir was killed instantly.

Women and men filed through the house like ghosts on the third day of mourning for him on Wednesday. Sheets billowed through the empty windows. Shiite Islamic prayers played from a tape recorder. The crevices in the couch were still filled with shards of glass.

Asya Khamza, an aunt, said her family had supported the Americans but now avoided any type of contact with them, mostly out of fear of suicide bombs. "They say they want to kill the Americans, but they kill us more," she said, her face contorted. "It’s a narrow street," she said, pointing to the road outside. "Why do they patrol civilian areas?"

Layla Isitfan and Zaineb Obeid contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article.

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