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Turning Iraq's offices into homes of their own
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Thirteen days ago, Aladdin Mahdi painted a piece of wood black, carefully wrote his name on it in white and nailed it above the door to his new home. With four rooms, and an outside balcony for hanging laundry, the apartment became his second-best new possession of the day, and he wears a persistent grin as wide as his doorway.
Down the hall, Mahdi Falih was not halfway through moving in. But downstairs, Majeed Hameed was well settled into his new digs with his wife, Suad Mureef, and their six children, daughter-in-law and grandchild. He had bashed a hole through a brick wall to make a doorway and built a bathroom of sorts in the alley. A green rain poncho serves as the door.
These are the looters who will not leave, Iraqi Robin Hoods who have stolen from the rich - the government - and given to the poor - themselves. They are among untold numbers who have taken over government buildings and converted them into apartments, taking up residence in the offices of bureaucrats. Mahdi and the others live in a building once used by the Ministry of Defense. Sometimes justice is found in the crime.
Among the many challenges facing whoever rebuilds Iraq are its many deep pockets of poverty, which have led to abysmal living conditions for millions of people. In the shadows of Saddam Hussein's grand palaces are miles-wide areas of housing that is nothing more than crumbling mud rooms crammed with 10 family members, 20 family members, sometimes 40 or more.
When the chance came to get out, Mahdi and his wife took it. That, too, will be a problem a new government will have to solve.
"I hope to stay here a long time, because the rents in Baghdad are too high," he says, sitting in a 12-by-12-foot office that is now his living room. "This is now our place."
He is 23 and had lived with his 19-year-old wife, Shayma Hussain, his son, Ahmed, 2, and seven members of her family. They left that house three months ago and moved into the home of a wealthy family that had fled to Syria to escape the war and hired him to keep guard. When the owners returned, Mahdi, his pregnant wife and Ahmed were homeless.
About that time, the U.S. military took over Baghdad and the city was looted. Most ministry buildings were ransacked and burned, but a number of satellite offices, such as this one, remained more or less intact.
When Mahdi heard on the street that there was space in the building, he loaded a pickup truck and moved his family's belongings into adjoining offices that now form a living room, bedroom, tiny kitchen and even smaller bathroom, and a fifth room, kept as quiet as possible, in which nine blankets are stacked in a corner.
It is not the lap of luxury, but on moving day only one thing pleased him more, something he would display later with that giant grin.
In the living room sit three stuffed chairs that are not terrible and two couches full of dust and worn at the arms. A red-and-tan rug covers much of the tile floor. An Aiwa mini-stereo rests on stacked console tables.
Next to that is a wooden table with a 19-inch television on it that can be connected to a car battery on the floor but gets no reception. A light from a truck is attached to a wall with a piece of wire, and another wire leads to the car battery.
The sleeping room is 15 feet by 12 feet and is empty except for a wide, tall bureau against one wall and a 2003 calendar on the wall opposite. The kitchen has an oven that does not work and two kerosene camp stoves that do. The bathroom is empty but for the makeshift toilet and a few scraps of wood and a broken mirror and Mahdi's ancient razor on the window sill.
There is no electricity, and water must be carried up from the first floor, but it is home.
"We are very happy here," says Mahdi's wife, "Before, there were too many people in a small area. This is better."
Falih, 50, who lives down the hall, has been proudly and diligently serving as the building's de facto superintendent, arranging for a water pump that will be useful once electricity is restored, and somehow getting two large basins filled. He has the former manager's office, so it is much larger than Mahdi's place and has a real toilet.
He lived in a house with his parents, his wife, eight brothers and 40 nieces and nephews. So he is happy with the space.
"I got here first," he explains with a grin like Mahdi's.
He will wait, though, until there is electricity, to move his wife and five children into his new apartment, which is so cluttered with scraps of wood and office furniture that there is no clear path to anything. He has been too busy helping his new neighbors to work on his own apartment. He sleeps on a cot.
Hameed's place is the garden apartment, on the ground floor, and is twice the size of Mahdi's. His wife, Mureef, is a cheerful woman who fears losing their new home. They had lived in a two-room building on the grounds of a nearby school, him working as a guard, she taking care of all those children.
The wall to which Hameed took a sledgehammer now sports a door, and on the other side is a room for his son, daughter-in-law and their baby. His wife is cooking on a kerosene stove,
"Now I don't need anything," Mureef says. "I need just to live in this place. Are they going to let us stay or make us go?"
With no government in the country, that is impossible to say. Other people in other government buildings are wondering the same thing. Some have claimed empty government land as their own, marking it with stones or white paint in some of Baghdad's poorest areas, the Salam and Jihad districts.
Back in his apartment, Mahdi is concerned, but still grins. He is concerned that his family will be booted from the building and will be homeless again.
"I will move the furniture in front of the building and live there," he says. "There is no other place to go."
He is also concerned because what little money he had stashed away is all but gone, and there is no work for him.
"We have food for maybe three more weeks," he says. "Then we will suffer."
But he is happy. In his fifth room is the prize he received on the day he moved into his new home 13 days ago, and he smiles even wider when he takes visitors in there.
She is tiny and beautiful and lying under a bath towel in a tiny and beautiful crib, her head gently wrapped in a pink silky material. She is 13 days old and fast asleep. Her name is Yasmin.