New ordeal for the old in Iraq
They are old men and women who have lived through the monarchy, Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led invasion and religion-fueled civil warfare.
Now, they putter about in a house on the Tigris River, passing the time on cots with pink sheets, in whitewashed rooms, with the faint smell of sweat mixing with the odor of sewage from the waters outside their windows.
The guests of the Mercy Home for the Elderly, a residence for indigent senior citizens, come from across Iraq and include Sunnis, Shiites and Christians.
Funded by prominent Shiite cleric Ayatollah Hussein Sadr, the two-story stone building, opened in November 2006, houses 43 men and women who have nowhere else to go.
At midday, they gather at plastic tables in the lunchroom, where they often eat a meal of lamb before retreating to a hallway to chat with one another or sit by themselves thinking about the past, when they still had families, loved ones, their health and, for some of them, their wits.
The elderly in Iraq traditionally lived with relatives, but as conditions worsened in recent years, some families abandoned their parents, a brother or sister.
Some were sent to Mercy by their kin; others were brought here by a hospital or the police after they showed up penniless on the doorstep of a mosque.
Manager Hadi Hamid Taie says his guests are mostly victims of the violence and economic hard times that followed the American-led invasion six years ago. He believes their families would never have sent them to Mercy before the war.
“This phenomenon is new,” Taie says. “According to our religion, it is not permitted to abandon your parents. On the contrary, Islam requires that you take special care of them.”
In 2003, the year the war began, there were two government-run homes for the aged in Baghdad.
In addition to Mercy, two private nursing homes have since opened in Baghdad and a few more in southern Iraq.
“The hard circumstances that the country faced -- the fighting and killings, the displacement -- all of these factors have left senior citizens homeless,” Taie says.
At the height of the violence in 2007, Mercy had 73 residents. But as the situation has improved, some children have taken relatives back. The home has open beds, and can easily take care of those who show up at its doors. And people do continue to arrive, victims of bloodshed, poverty and instability in Iraq.
The residents are a testament to the country’s suffering: an 84-year-old woman whose family was killed and whose home was bombed in Basra last year and now lies curled up in bed; a man in his 80s who lost his faculties in Saddam Hussein’s prisons and now speaks gibberish as he tries to massage people’s heads to show off his psychic powers.
Then there are those whose pain lies in remembering what has been taken from them and their yearning for the happier days of the past.
Najea Abdul Hussein, 72, is an emaciated woman with a look of fear and helplessness. Ten months ago, she lived with her younger sister and her family in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriya. It was then, she says, that her sister ordered her to leave, shouting, “I can’t take care of you. Go to your brothers.”
Najea Hussein says she headed off past alleys, palm trees and sand-colored brick homes toward the western bank of the Tigris. No longer wanted by anyone, she planned to drown herself.
As she walked, she says, she bade farewell to the city she had known -- the streets where she and her father once rode in a horse-driven cart on weekends to the Imam Kadhim shrine, with its gold dome, its Shiite pilgrims dressed in black as they entered the sacred ground. It was in Baghdad where she met her husband, an army sergeant, during the time of Abdul Karim Qassim, Iraq’s first prime minister after the monarchy fell in 1958.
Najea Hussein was her husband’s second wife, the one he spent all his time with, she recalls, because she was young and pretty. They lived together for 20 years before a heart attack struck him down. It was to Hurriya she returned as a widow, to live with her mother and help keep house for her five brothers. And it was here that she was abandoned all these years later.
She finally reached the Tigris, ready to throw herself in, she says. But a policeman spotted her, she says, and pulled her rail-thin body away from the bank. After a hospital stay, and no family member claiming her, she was sent to Mercy.
She points to Taie, the home’s manager, a graying, balding man, and says he is like a parent to her. “I was confused and helpless and had nowhere else to go before.”
Many facts are hazy to her. She cannot recall Saddam Hussein’s name. She does not know if there is currently an Iraqi president or prime minister.
What exists most vividly is the pain of her family shunning her, her mother’s kindness and the days after the 1958 revolution when her husband loved her, and Qassim’s government awarded them a plot in what was to become New Baghdad, then countryside but soon to be transformed into a dense maze of homes.
“After . . . Qassim, things deteriorated. We had strangers come and they ruined everything,” she says, her voice scratchy, as she refers to leaders of Hussein’s Baath Party. She excuses herself; a headache is coming on.
Sitting in a hallway, Hassan Ghazi, 77, shakes his head. He didn’t expect he would end up here either. He wears brown sunglasses and is gaunt, with his hair cut close to the scalp. He lifts the shades to reveal glazed turquoise pupils. Then he opens his mouth to show four missing front teeth and asks where he can get them replaced.
Ghazi, a government truck driver, retired in 2000. A year later, his wife died and he started losing his sight. “I thought I would live freely. I would dress up and go to the cafe and drink tea and smoke narguila [a water pipe],” he says.
But he hated coming back to his empty home. His wife, he recalls wistfully, “would make me forget my tiredness and worries.”
“She made funny jokes. She laughed at me.”
With the fall of Saddam Hussein, he seldom left home, hearing second-hand the stories of bodies in the streets and gunmen lurking in the alleys. He smiles warmly thinking about a simpler time when he was a boy and his father wore a feathered hat, serving in the army under the monarchy.
Once a week, he tries to capture a bit of the past by hailing a taxi and crossing the river into the maze of grimy, yellow-brick buildings in old Baghdad, with their soot-covered porticoes and balconied windows. His destination is the shambling Shabandar Cafe at the end of Mutanabi Street, famous for its outdoor book market.
“I’ve gone there since 1973. I never go anywhere else. It’s nice and has intellectual people, lawyers, all the elite.”
Ghazi takes out a black-and-white picture from his wallet. He is a young man with dark hair, a mustache and dark, clear eyes. The photo, he says, is 30 years old.
“I was very happy in this photo,” he says, then glances with faltering eyes at the halls where men like himself are staring into space. They also carry pictures in their pockets of their younger and healthier selves.
Taie will call them in later for another meal. Some will lie in their rooms until then, or until the rare visit from a relative.
“We have many stories here,” Taie says.
Ahmed is a Times staff writer.