Hope survived one Iraq bombing, but not the second
After I survived my first bombing, I said to myself, I won’t see worse than this. Then I survived my second bombing and it changed everything.
It was a Wednesday in August, and I was sitting at my desk in the Foreign Ministry doing routine paperwork. I can’t remember what time it was. My colleague entered the room, and at that moment, there was a huge explosion. Glass flew in and the ceiling collapsed. Black smoke came through the window.
I felt pain in my abdomen; blood stained my shirt. I heard a friend moaning. I helped him up and went to the hallway. Employees were screaming. The smoke made it hard to see.
The Aug. 19 attack on the Foreign and Finance ministries killed about 100 people -- and all my hopes for Iraq.
On my first day back at the Foreign Ministry, my heart ached. It was like visiting a graveyard. And almost like visiting my own grave: Because I’ve survived two bombings since 2003, people joke and tell me my chances for survival a third time are slim.
The first explosion happened on New Year’s Eve 2003. I was working as a photographer and driver for The Times and had come to love reporting stories and shooting pictures. It was different from my life before the war, running a photo studio and taking photographs of parties in Baghdad.
We had decided to celebrate that night at Nabil’s, one of the fanciest restaurants in Baghdad. My friend Mohammed, his wife and I arrived at the restaurant early. Couples were raising champagne glasses to celebrate.
Around 8:30 p.m., the waiter was asking us what we wanted to drink when suddenly the lights went dark. After a while, I managed to open one eye. I was wondering if I was dreaming.
I couldn’t see out of my right eye. I couldn’t feel half of my face, and was bleeding heavily. I started to lose consciousness. At the hospital, I told people my address in case I died. I started to ask nurses what was wrong with my face. They told me I was fine, there were just some small scratches.
I started to hear doctors saying that my wounds were serious and they thought I wouldn’t make it. They thought I was a hopeless case and they left me by the emergency room door, with my name scrawled on a piece of paper pinned to my shirt.
Everything before that night was promising to me. I was optimistic about Iraq, that things would get better and Iraq would be rebuilt.
Despite the bombing, and the pain I still feel today on the right side of my face, I decided to continue working with The Times, though my family tried to talk me out of it. They said it was too dangerous to work with news organizations, especially American ones.
But I told myself it couldn’t get worse.
Then came the bombing of the shrine in Samarra in 2006. Car bombings became a daily routine. Driving in the streets was a great risk -- either you would get stopped at a false checkpoint, or a roadside bomb might explode.
I got married Aug. 15 of that year and stayed in Egypt for 40 days. I waited in line at the United Nations to pick up an application for its refugee program. I told myself I would go back to Baghdad, sell my furniture and belongings, and return to Egypt and apply to go to a third country as a refugee.
My brother-in-law was already living in Egypt, waiting for the call from the U.N. to send him to a Western country, but his financial situation was difficult, and I realized the situation would be the same for me. So I chose to stay in Baghdad.
Life started improving at the end of 2007. I found a job at the Foreign Ministry and began to have hope. I decided to give Iraq another chance.
My ambition was to become a successful diplomat, to represent Iraq abroad in America or an Arab country. The ministry was unique. It doesn’t belong to a party. It has different sects working together without discrimination. Even the casualties in the bombing were mixed.
After the attack there, hospital staffers moved patients to make room for the incoming wounded. I remembered my experience from the last bombing, so I kept checking on people and made sure they were cared for. I told them not to be afraid, “I am with you.”
I think all the time about people who died in the ministry.
A young man named Saif worked in the Arab countries section. I wasn’t that close to him, but sometimes we talked. He was a good fellow. He had just bought a car and said that at last he could get married.
For his funeral, they brought a trumpet and drum band to roam the city in a car, as if the procession was a wedding party.
Then there were my friends Hibba and Mayada, both of them pregnant. In the hospital emergency room, Mayada’s husband shouted at me: “My wife is dead! Help me!”
I feel crazy now going to work, but it distracts me from what happened.
Every day, I worry that someone will plant a bomb on my car or I will drive into a suicide attack on my way to work. The other night at a restaurant, a waiter dropped a cutting board and I jumped. One minute Iraq could be the best country in the world, and in the next minute it could be the worst.
I don’t know what to do. All my thoughts are about leaving the country. If I stay here with my parents, there is a possibility that I will face another attack and die. If I leave Iraq, I will lose my job and my family but I will probably save my life.
It’s a very hard decision to make. It gives me headaches.
Sometimes, I see explosions on the street, and I turn to my wife and say: “OK, we’re leaving. I made the decision. It’s over.”
Then the next day I think of my parents and change my mind.
After the latest bombing, my mother told me: “It’s better for you to leave. We will provide for ourselves.” Of course, she was saying this in agony because any mother wants her son to be next to her.
Before the second bombing, I was eager to renovate my home. I saw some political progress. But now I feel helpless again. The politicians blame one another and try to make one another fail, while innocent people become the victims.
This is the reality for me now.
Khalaf is a photographer and news assistant in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau.