Baghdad: City of Walls, Pt.1: Scars of war

April 19, 2009

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports from his hometown in the first part of his City of Walls video series.

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Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports from his hometown in the first part of his City of Walls video series.


Story Transcript

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD, THE GUARDIAN: I grew up in Baghdad, went to university here. Since the war started in 2003, I keep coming back to report on my country for The Guardian newspaper in London. It’s the ordinary Iraqis who interest me. Their faces, their lives tell the story of how Baghdad has been affected by war. America will withdraw from Baghdad in 2010. But what has been left behind? How deep is the scar left on Iraqi hearts and minds? Baghdad is now a traumatized city, a cantonized, divided city, Sunnis against Shia. It has become a desperate city of walls. My high school used to be down there, and it was so easy for us to go from our high school and cross the bridge. This was a main highway in Baghdad; now it’s separating Sunnis from Shia. To the right we see—it’s a Shia neighborhood, Qahira, surrounded by blast walls. To the left, it’s a Sunni neighborhood also surrounded by blast walls. We are about to go into the Sunni district of Adhamiyah now. But first that means a checkpoint. It’s better to get the camera down. We’re having a checkpoint now. There are only two points of entry to that area, once through the north and one through the south. Get the camera down. It’s very dangerous to get the camera out. Even if we have press cards, if they see us what the camera we’ll be in big trouble. This is an Iraqi army checkpoint. They’re all over Baghdad. Waiting at these checkpoints is a tense business—so often these are the places where suicide bombers attack. I always feel on edge. After what feels like an age, we get through. Welcome to Adhamiyah. What was once a pretty affluent suburb of northeastern Baghdad is now a fortified Sunni enclave. It shocks me. Everywhere I go in Adhamiyah, even as an Iraqi, I now have to be accompanied by this man. He’s a leader of the awakening council, or sahwa, here. They call themselves the Adhamiyah Revolutionaries. The Sunni militiamen are the reason why people say the killing has stopped. They’re former insurgents who became America’s allies. They fought al-Qaeda on their behalf. These are the men who decide who comes in and out of Adhamiyah now.


ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): So you didn’t get the new Iraqi flag?

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): No, we have kept the old Iraqi flag. Let the government do what it wants; we won’t change.

MAN: Okay. Just check the boot and then let them through.

ABDUL-AHAD Is there a problem?

MAN: No. Everything’s fine. It’s just that when we have a stranger, we always check his car.


ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): He was just telling me that the car that was passing over there had four guys. One of them had a Shia ID card, and still there was no problem for them to pass into the area.

WOMAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): They killed my son Sa-ad.

ABDUL-AHAD While I was at the checkpoint, this little old lady came up to me suddenly. She told me she was homeless.

WOMAN: They killed my son. The Mehdi Army kicked me out of Khadamiyah.

ABDUL-AHAD Khadamiyah’s now an exclusively Shiite area of Baghdad. It’s just across the bridge. I can tell by the names on the paper that she’s a Sunni—the wrong kind of a Muslim in Khadamiyah now. And so she begs the streets here. She is one of the thousands of new homeless in Baghdad, displaced because of the civil war.

WOMAN: They came to where I was living. They asked me if I was from Mosul. They said, "Are you Sa’ad’s mother?" I said, "Yes." They said,"You have to leave in five minutes or you will be killed." So I took to the streets. I’ve got nobody to support me. I live on the charity of good people like yourself. I’ve been living like this for six months. I am homeless.


ABDUL-AHAD Scratch the surface and you see how abnormal the situation is. There is no such thing as a Baghdadi anymore. You’re either a Sunni or a Shia. People are living in what are effectively ethnically cleansed neighborhoods. Feelings of freedom and safety have been limited to a few hundred square meters inside the wall.


ABDUL-AHAD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Can you leave this place?

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Absolutely not. We are threatened by militias, gangs, and even al-Qaeda.

ABDUL-AHAD So how far can you travel?

MAN: Our limit is the checkpoint at Antar Square. Beyond that they will kill us.

ABDUL-AHAD So it’s as if you are under siege here.

MAN: For sure. It’s like a prison here, a real prison. If you go to the cemetery over there, you will see 2,870 graves. All these markers are people killed by the militias and gangs.

ABDUL-AHAD The cemetery didn’t exist before?

MAN: It was established in 2005.


ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): Everyone who has lost their life in Iraq is called a shahid. The word means "martyr" in Arabic. We use the term to show respect to the dead, not because these martyrs are suicide bombers. Most often they’re ordinary Iraqis, like this man, Razi Faisul Sultan el-Baghdadi. I’m told he was a street vendor selling baklava or sweet pastries, which we Iraqis love so much. A car bomb exploded in the market, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time—just one more shahid to join the thousands of others. I go to Adhamiyah’s new cemetery by the waters of the Tigris. It overwhelms me. This piece of land used to be a children’s playground. But the people couldn’t reach their normal cemetery because of the violence, so they had to improvise. Nearly 3,000 people have been buried here since this cemetery was created in 2005. There is still no definitive figure on how many Iraqis have died since America invaded in 2003. Even conservative estimates put the figure at 90,000. And while much is made of the fact that the scale of death and killing has diminished in the past two years, the human grief has not. This woman’s son was murdered by Shia militia on 25 June 2006.




ABDUL-AHAD How did it happen? At a checkpoint?

WOMAN: Some armed men took him. There were policemen standing nearby. They were watching. But none of them protected him; nobody helped him. They shot him seven times—his head, his arms, and his chest. He died instantly and became a martyr.

ABDUL-AHAD Where is his grave?

WOMAN: He wasn’t a thief or a looter. He was an innocent boy. God help me! God help me!


ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): Like Nashwanan Iveen, most of the dead here were killed because they were Sunni Muslims, killed in their shops, outside their houses, on their way to work or coming home from work, killed because of their names or their family names. And some of them were killed by al-Qaeda car bombs in Adhamiyah. Baghdad is a city full of grief. As the sun starts to set, I noticed an elderly man, almost the last person in the cemetery, sitting by the grave of his son Omer.


ABDUL-AHAD He died on September 25, 2006. He tells me the story of how he died—betrayed by his best friend, Ali, a Shia who lived in the Shiite district of Qahira.

MR. ABBAS: Ali lured him to Qahira, and he sold him to militias there.


MR. ABBAS: Yes, in Qahira. They killed my son and threw his body in the water tank. Homer had done nothing wrong. He been Ali’s friend for 12 years. He was 23 years old. You see that grave over there? That’s a friend who tried to save my son. He worked as a barber in Qahira. The militia killed him too. They cut off his ears and nose and threw his body on top of my son’s body. His name was Nemir Taha. And this here is Omer.

ABDUL-AHAD (ENGLISH): Mr. Abbas tells me he knows the names of his son’s killers, but he has no hope of bringing them to justice. The story of Omer and Ali sums up everything that has gone wrong in Iraq. When I was a kid in school, I had no idea who was a Shia and who was a Sunni. If childhood friends are now betraying each other, the emotional scars of this civil war will take years to heal. It was time to see the wall itself, the wall that separates Adhamiyah from Qahira, the wall that explains why Ali betrayed Omer.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.