Faith in times of war

Among all the blood and horror of Baghdad, a journalist found many Iraqis determined to laugh, celebrate and cling to normality at all costs. Here, Oliver Poole explains how they inspired his new book

For the last few years Baghdad was my home. I lived there as a journalist, covering a period when the certainties of life fragmented as a society unravelled. Some of my friends were abducted, others were murdered and a few were sent mad from the horror of it all. Yet, despite the extremity of what was happening to their country, the majority of the Iraqis I met remained not that different from you and me.

They worried for their relatives, they got stressed about how to pay their bills, they commuted to work, they watched television, they made jokes about their hardships and they tried to maintain good relationships with their spouses and children. Amid the violence, the normal patterns of life continued. Shops opened, weddings were arranged, students sat exams, babies were born.

I can remember being invited by an Iraqi friend to watch a televised football match at his house. Law and order had largely broken down and criminal gangs were acting almost at will. The kidnapping of Westerners had begun, often with the full horror of their final moments broadcast on the Internet. The drive to my friend’s home was nerve-racking. If a car followed me around a corner I wondered who was inside. If a vehicle stopped suddenly on the road in front it could be the first stage of a planned ambush. I was no longer looking at the city to improve the depth of my articles; I was watching it in case something was about to go terribly wrong.

At the house, however, my friend’s wife was bustling around the kitchen preparing food. His oldest daughter was instant-messaging on the family computer while the youngest, a little girl of only four, greeted my arrival by performing cartwheels.

Football was one of the few activities that bridged Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divides. When the national side beat North Korea in late 2003, an American TV network broke into its regular coverage with a news flash that Baghdad was in revolt as the city was filled with machine-gun fire. The gunfire actually came from jubilant Iraqis hailing the victory in the traditional manner by taking out the family Kalashnikov and firing into the air in delight.

I was sent to Iraq in 2003 by a British national newspaper, my first war assignment in a decade working as a reporter. Born and raised in London, I had previously been based in the Far East and the US.

I was largely rootless and, to be honest, self-centred. Being a foreign correspondent often does that to you, so that when things get tough, you can simply move on. It was Iraq that made me realise there was more to life. I saw people struggling to hold on to all they had cared about, and their emotion when circumstance ripped that from them. It was powerful and moving to behold. It was also what made it so difficult being on visits back to London. If discussed at all, the war would be talked about in the abstract, the identity of the individual victims lost in the detail of casualties or military operations.

It was because of this that I wrote my book, Red Zone. I wanted to try to explain who those anonymous figures are – civilian or soldier – in the news bulletins and photographs from Iraq. I did not want to examine in detail the intricacies of the policy or strategies used during the war. From where I was based, a hotel compound stuck in the middle of Baghdad’s Red Zone that was constantly at risk of attack, and which at one point was partly destroyed by suicide bombers, it was often impossible to know the big picture anyway.

My closest friend in Baghdad was an Iraqi called Ahmed. Before the war, he had been a tourist guide. After the American invasion there were no tourists in Iraq any more, and few architectural monuments left for them to look at, as buildings that had stood for thousands of years were stripped by looters and their relics smuggled abroad.

Ahmed became my translator, the guide who led me through the dangers of Baghdad, and showed me the ruins of the life he had known. He had been brought up in a middle-class Sunni family and lived with his wife and small daughter in the south-western suburb of Dora. This district became one of the most brutal fronts in the sectarian civil war as each side committed atrocities in an attempt to oust the other.

In late 2005, Ahmed announced that his wife was pregnant and the following spring she gave birth to their second child. The labour started in the middle of the night. The streets were very dangerous by then, and the night-time curfew was rigorously enforced. He helped his wife to their car and turned on the inside lights and hazard signals. They drove very slowly through the streets. At a police checkpoint he was stopped and told to go back. The officers were scared. Ahmed opened the door to explain and a warning shot was fired. He had to plead with them for a long time before they finally allowed him to pass.

I had been amazed when Ahmed originally told me the news that his wife was pregnant. He was a cautious man who was already worried about the effect the war was having on his daughter and what would happen to her if he was killed as a result of his line of work. It was a strange time to bring a new life into that world. Yet he was so proud when he appeared in our office with photographs of his new son. The lines that usually furrowed his face were temporarily gone. He had looked young again.

Last December I flew to see Ahmed, who had, like millions of his countrymen, fled Iraq with his family and was living as a refugee in Syria. We sat and ate a meal together in his new home, an apartment in a run-down part of Damascus. Dora had been such a dangerous place that I never met Ahmed’s wife or children while in Baghdad. Now we were finally able to meet, talk and share a joke.

I asked Ahmed about his decision to have another child. "My friend," he said. "I thought about it for a long time. I realised you cannot stop living. If you do, then you are beaten. So I thought, ‘What do I believe in during these crazy times?’ I came to the conclusion I believe in my family. I decided there is hope in that. That would give me my future, God willing, even if my country does not."

Before escaping to Syria, Ahmed had spent years working for me covering bombings and sectarian murders. He still believed, however, that there was the opportunity for good in the world and in people. "If you do not believe that people can be good, can treat each other with respect and love despite all that is happening around them, then the armed groups have won," he said that day in Damascus. "I could never allow that." It was not the lesson I had expected to take from my time amid the sand, dust and danger of Iraq. But it was the one I got. For that I will always be grateful.

— By arrangement with The Independent