The Iraqi who wasn't there

Times Staff Writers

Abu Hassan took deep breaths of joy as he crossed the double-decker bridge spanning the Tigris River. The water below may have stunk of sewage. The air may have been choked with traffic fumes. It didn't matter to Abu Hassan.

He was free after nearly a year hidden inside his house, the only place he had felt safe from the gunmen and killers who had taken over his neighborhood in south Baghdad.

"To breathe, to see people, to feel that I am still alive," he said recently, recalling his decision that day last winter to drive across the bridge leading from the Dora neighborhood to central Baghdad.

All he did was buy gas, turn around and go back into his house, but Abu Hassan, a Shiite Muslim living in a mainly Sunni Arab area, had taken his first tentative steps back into the world that had terrified him for so long.

This is one man's story of survival in the midst of the capital's deadly sectarian war, but it is also the story of how fear paralyzed a city by driving people underground or out of their homes.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that since February 2006, when the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra unleashed massive Sunni-Shiite bloodshed, 1.5 million Iraqis have been displaced within the country, most of them Baghdad residents who fled their neighborhoods. There is no estimate of how many people locked themselves away and pretended not to exist, as Abu Hassan did.

For Abu Hassan, it was a year in which time had no meaning. He would not sleep until 3 or 4 a.m. He would eat meals and devour nuts, coffee, tea and soda all day while watching TV. He would try to read, but it was difficult to concentrate.

"I was thinking about what would happen after one hour, tonight, tomorrow," he said.

After the mosque bombing, Dora quickly became one of the capital's worst killing grounds. Sunni insurgents loyal to Al Qaeda in Iraq began moving in, targeting Christians and Shiites, who were minorities in the area. The once-thriving Dora market fell into ruin, and the streets became dumping grounds for bodies of people who refused gunmen's orders to leave their homes and businesses.

An influx of U.S. and Iraqi security forces in the last year, along with the growth of neighborhood security groups known as the Sons of Iraq, has changed Dora and brought the number of attacks down to about one or two a week, according to the U.S. military.

But the people of Dora are wary of pushing too far, too fast.

Abu Hassan, for example, went back into hiding for weeks after his drive over the bridge and finally emerged fully in December. He reluctantly began telling his story a few weeks ago, but is terrified that insurgents will come after him if they learn he was living in their midst.

So he refuses to give his full name, going only by a moniker that identifies him as the father of Hassan. He will not identify the Shiite uncle and cousin who were killed by insurgents last year when they refused gunmen's orders to close their shop.

He won't allow visitors into the home he shares with his parents and his wife and son. Nor will he come to where foreigners live. He won't let his house be photographed or permit a physical description of himself to be published, other than to say he is 32 and fat -- a result of his overeating during his self-imposed house arrest.

He fidgets and squirms as he speaks and glances around frequently, as if looking for a stalker. He chain-smokes, forcefully shoving each butt into the ashtray at a hotel cafe before lighting the next one. Still, he is impeccably dressed and unfailingly polite as he finally tells his story after canceling plans to meet several times.

Abu Hassan made the decision to hide the month his son was born: November 2006. Worried for his family's safety, he sought advice from a Lebanese friend who had survived his own country's civil war.

"You have the experience of 15 years of sectarian killing," he said to the friend. "What is the best to do?" The friend advised him to shut himself off from the violence.

That wasn't easy. Abu Hassan was a car salesman who commuted to another part of town. Insurgents favored his upscale neighborhood because of the comfortable houses, the highway that offered a quick escape route and the vast fields nearby that were ideal for stashing weapons and for hiding from security forces.

"Day by day, things got worse," Abu Hassan said. "The highway was witnessing killings, kidnappings and explosions. It was not possible even for the security forces to put checkpoints in some of its parts. The checkpoints there were always attacked."

The insurgents targeted men and usually left women and the elderly alone, so Abu Hassan went into hiding and his mother and wife, both teachers, went to work, did the shopping and updated him on the world outside: the killings, the bombings, the deterioration of the neighborhood and eventually the turnaround. His wife is a Sunni, which helped ensure her safety, as long as nobody knew her Shiite husband was hiding at home.

From November 2006 until December 2007, he remained inside except for the day he drove across the bridge and the rare times he ventured into his walled garden at night.

His father, a grocer, joined him in hiding after a friend at the market warned him that as a Shiite, he was sure to be killed. It had happened to several fellow shopkeepers. Abu Hassan rattled off the ones he remembered: a man selling food, a shoe salesman, a humble man who sold tea from a small wooden kiosk.

"All of them were killed for sectarian reasons," he said.

Trapped inside, he learned to cook and to care for his child, becoming a househusband in a society where men are supposed to be the breadwinners and women the homemakers.

Depression set in. "I had nothing to do. I felt that I was idle, and on top of hearing all the sad stories and bad news, the only thing to do was eat," he said.

Most of his time was spent in the living room, where the TV is. When he grew restless, he would go upstairs, then downstairs and then upstairs again. Anything to break the monotony. But each time he heard of another killing or attack, it convinced Abu Hassan that he was right to stay inside.

Sometimes he would hear shooting nearby and sit silently, barely breathing, until the danger passed. Several times, he tried to convince his parents that the family should leave. They refused to give up the family home, and Abu Hassan refused to go anywhere without them, so the family remained together in Dora.

It was a wretched life, lived behind drawn curtains and locked doors, with their weapons loaded and a lock and chain to keep the front gate secure.

"Sometimes I had a glance at the street either from behind the fence of the house or through a very small hole in the gate," he said. After glimpsing bombed-out homes and deserted streets, "the area seemed to me as if it were attacked by a chemical weapon."

To outsiders, it appeared that his house was occupied by only his mother and his wife.

Late last fall, he sensed a change. U.S. forces had been in Baghdad in increased numbers since January 2007. A movement known as the Awakening, which involved Iraqis volunteering to help protect their neighborhoods, was catching on.

"Instead of the news of the killings and violence, we began to hear that this Qaeda leader was killed or that one was detained or had left the area," Abu Hassan said.

The highway became safer, and the sounds of gunfire decreased. Abu Hassan felt the chains loosening.

He can't remember the day he decided it was safe to go outside. It was not a particular event that encouraged him so much as a growing sense that things were better.

One day, he washed the dust off his car and drove over the bridge. But then he hurried back to his house.

A few weeks later, though, after hearing of the deaths of some key insurgent leaders in the area, he quietly came out for good.

Now, he has returned to work. A few days ago, he felt confident enough to stand on the street and chat with neighbors. They welcomed him back, thinking he had been out of the country. He let them believe it.

In his neighborhood, shops have reopened and are full of men and women, holding on to their children's hands and browsing through colorful collections of clothes, fruits and vegetables. Iraqi police stand guard at dozens of checkpoints across Dora.

Some people worry that elements of Al Qaeda in Iraq remain in the area. Abu Hassan isn't one of them. He says they have lost their leaders or turned against the insurgency to earn money as guards working alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces.

His main concerns are losing the weight he gained, earning money to help the family recover the savings used during his year of inactivity, and learning to live again.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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