Bomb’s Lasting Toll: Lost Laughter and Broken Lives
By SABRINA TAVERNISE, New York Times
Published: January 7, 2007
BAGHDAD, Jan. 6 — If the cost of this war is measured in human lives, one block in southeast Baghdad has paid more than its share.
On a hot morning two summers ago, 34 children were killed here in a flash of smoke and metal. They were scooping up candy thrown from an American Humvee. The suicide bomber’s truck never slowed down.
More than 3,000 Iraqis are dying every month in this war — roughly the total deaths in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or all the American troops killed since the war began. But behind the headlines and statistics, most of the war is experienced in Iraqi living rooms and on blocks like the one here, where families struggle with the intense pain of loss.
And while American war planners discuss the way ahead, Iraqis on this scarred block are stuck in the past on the morning of July 13, 2005, when time stopped and the war truly began for them.
“Our life now, it’s not a life, it’s a kind of dream,” said Qais Ataiwee Yaseen, whose two boys, ages 8 and 11, were killed that day. “Life has no taste. I even feel sick of myself.”
Qais Ataiwee Yaseen lost two sons, Abbas, 11, and Ali, 8, in the blast. “I’m like a dead man,” said Mr. Yaseen, who now lives alone in a small room. “I have no ambitions. I have no goals in life. I have lost everything.”
In the early years of the war, the street — a dusty, trash-strewn strip of concrete that runs between Baghdad’s southeast highway and the neighborhood of Naariya — was mostly quiet, home to a mix of Shiite and Sunni families who had known each other for years.
But the cruelty of the war intervened when the bomber struck, apparently aiming at a convoy of American Humvees parked at the end of the street. One American soldier and 34 Iraqis were killed. All were boys, and all but four were younger than 15. The youngest was 6. In all, 29 families lost children; one lost three sons.
In the seconds after the explosion, the world narrowed to one child for Sattar Hashim, a 39-year-old security guard whose son had gone out to see the American patrol. Mr. Hashim moved frantically through the wreckage, just outside his front gate, a scene now burned into his memory. He found his son unconscious, his body torn by shrapnel.
“I pray to God that no one in this world will ever have to face such a scene,” he said, remembering the scene as he sat in his sparely furnished living room with the curtains drawn. “As if they had been scattered on the ground. Legs. Arms. Heads. Bodies still burning.”
His son died in a hospital operating room several hours after the explosion.
Suicide bombings often stop clocks nearby, throwing the delicate mechanisms out of balance. The minute hand freezes the moment that the bomber detonates, and cleanup crews find clocks hanging crookedly on walls hours later, with the moment of loss fixed forever on the clocks’ faces.
For the parents in Naariya, the clocks are frozen at a quarter after 10. The deaths that morning tore a hole in the life of the block, and more than a year later, many people have been unable to put their lives back together. Some have drifted away from their spouses. Others changed jobs or stopped going to work altogether. Reminders of the loss were everywhere: Class sizes were smaller. Soccer tournaments for 12-year-olds stopped. Bug collecting was no longer a hobby.
The pain caused strange things to happen. Mr. Yaseen lost his knack for numbers and found himself fumbling in front of customers at the hardware store where he had worked for years. Eventually, he quit. Reading and writing became difficult for Zahra Hussein, the mother of 11-year-old Hamza. She had lost her ability to concentrate and some of her eyesight.
Hadi Faris, Hamza’s father, stopped his work as a driver. He could not control his thoughts, and concentrating on the road and split- second decisions was too onerous.
“I kept thinking how life is cheap, how so many innocent people are killed,” he said, sitting in front of a kerosene heater in a small guest room.
After some months, he applied for, and was given, a job as a guard in his son’s school. It felt somehow reassuring to do after his son’s death what could not be done during his life: protect.
“I felt that all the kids were Hamza,” he said. “My main job was to protect them all.”
Life became empty and quiet for the children who were left. Adel Ali, 12, lost four of his best friends, most of his small soccer team and his entire bicycle-racing brigade. They had all shared a surge of happiness in the form of a birthday cake with candles, a first for most of the children, just days before the explosion. The experience was recorded in a grainy photograph of nine little boys making monkey faces. All but two are dead.
Adel Ali, 12, survived the July 13, 2005, blast but lost four of his best friends. After two killings at his school, his father began keeping him home.
Adel spends his afternoons alone at home. In the early evening, he plays soccer with the older boys. They do not know the names of famous players that he and his friends gave each other when they made good plays. They do not know the sheer joy of riding bicycles while holding a rope together. They do not understand his loneliness.
“We used to play together, and the adults would play in another place,” said Adel, his small fingers zipping and unzipping a fleece pullover at his neck.
The attack seemed calculated to make Iraqis despise Americans, in a pattern that would eventually succeed and change the direction of the war. But while some of the parents interviewed seem to have developed that hatred, many had not and even expressed respect. Mr. Faris said that immediately after the bombing he saw a soldier with a mangled arm trying to pick up a wounded child.
More Americans came to the area several weeks later and brought small trinkets to houses, in what Iraqis assumed was something of a peace offering.
“We never hurt the Americans, and the Americans never hurt us,” Mr. Faris said.
A constant theme of the war for Iraqis has been their complete lack of control over chaotic, life-changing events. Like victims of a car wreck on an empty highway, they sit in pain and hope that help will come along.
Mr. Yaseen is haunted by the helplessness he felt that morning when he found his younger son, Ali, still alive. He was badly burned and missing his feet.
“I said to myself — two feet, it is nothing,” he said. But within several hours the child was dead.
“I did not have the ability to do anything for him,” Mr. Yaseen said. “To save him.”
Memories rush back at inconvenient moments. Mr. Yaseen has one in which his older son, Abbas, who loved bugs, begged him not to put poison down for the ants, saying, “They also have families and houses.”
Even trifles sting. Ali, called English Ali for his tidiness and admiration for Americans, had only bread to eat for breakfast that morning.
“I’m like a dead man,” said Mr. Yaseen, crying into his hands. “I have no ambitions. I have no goals in life. I have lost everything.”
His wife and daughter have moved out, and he has retreated into his apartment, a 12-foot by 14-foot room. He stopped shaving. The room is now piled with baskets of laundry, old children’s toys and a metal bassinet.
“I live in this room,” he said. “I sleep in this room. I eat in this room. This is my whole life. As if I’m in prison.”
Meanwhile, the war ground on, and the block was not immune to changes.
In February, poor Shiites rampaged in neighborhoods throughout eastern Baghdad. Naariya started to lose Sunnis. New graffiti in black paint across from Mr. Yaseen’s house spelled praise for a Shiite cleric.
Three Shiite families from Diyala, a violent province north of Baghdad, arrived with the stunned look of refugees who just lost everything but their lives.
“There are no smiles on their faces,” Ms. Hussein said. “You can tell they lost somebody.”
Attacks on Shiites by Sunni militants started to wear, and families on the block began asking about the backgrounds of newcomers.
A small statue erected in the children’s memory was blown up, and a bomb was planted under a date palm tree nearby, but it did not explode. During the Ramadan holiday in October, around 20 Sunni men disappeared from the neighborhood. Their bodies turned up in different neighborhoods several days later.
Mr. Hashim heard of the kidnappings but was afraid to ask about them.
“We woke up one day,” he said, “and a family had left.” The 2005 explosion gouged the pavement in front of his house, and afterward he had a large blast wall built. The wall had the added benefit of shielding him from seeing the crater in the street day after day.
For Adel, the 12-year-old whose friends were killed, memories returned in spurts. Some time after the July attack, he took his bicycle to the balcony of his house and threw it off. He was angry about what happened, Ms. Hussein said. A month ago, his life became even more isolated: a guard and a teacher from his school were killed, and Adel’s father began keeping him home.
The boys come back in unexpected ways. Hamza’s sister sees her brother’s face in a boy who lives in a house on her way to school. She gives him candy sometimes. Mr. Yaseen often sees his boys in dreams.
In one, Abbas asks him why he is crying. He spoke of his own burial in a reassuring way. “He tried to make it easy for me,” Mr. Yaseen said.
Speaking of the deaths, Mr. Hashim said: “It formed a hole, a big hole. Before the street was crowded. Cars had to go slowly. Now it’s empty.”