2004International Reporting

Enduring Life, and Now War

Mother Struggling to Survive Weeps as She Sends Son to Fight
Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
March 28, 2003;
Page A01

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BAGHDAD, March 27 -- The bombs crashed that morning on Baghdad, declaring war. At nightfall, Karima, a mother of eight, took her eldest son to the bus station, sending him off to fight in the north.

Their farewell was infused with the deeply religious idiom of Arabic, phrases at once formal and personal. "God be with you," she remembered saying, as her 20-year-old son boarded the rickety red bus for Mosul, a 30-cent fare in his hand. "God protect you."

Those words, spoken a week ago, were their last.

Her son, a tall, gaunt soldier known for his generosity, traveled five hours to man an antiaircraft battery in Bartalah, about 25 miles north of Mosul. She returned to her three-room apartment, tears running down her face, under a black veil.

"A mother's heart rests on her son's heart," she said. "Every hour, I cry for him."

In a city scarred on its surface by bombing and deep in its psyche by years of hardship, a week-old war is only her latest tragedy. The story of Karima is perhaps most remarkable for how unexceptional it is.

A short woman with worn hands, she has no money, no work other than selling chewing gum from a canvas mat in the street, and the dearth of hope that forces so many in this once-proud city to put their faith and future in God's hands.

Speaking to a journalist, without the presence of a government escort, Karima expressed sentiments in Baghdad today that seemed confusing, even contradictory. Yet they remain common, coloring the Iraqi capital as it enters its second week of war.

She is a Shiite Muslim in a land ruled by a relentlessly repressive government dominated by Sunni Muslims. She takes pride in her son's service in the army, but deems the war a waste and waits for news she hopes will never come. Her five daughters reflexively break into a chant in support of President Saddam Hussein, perhaps more out of fear than fealty. In more reflective moments, they speak not of defending his government, but of protecting their homes, their country and their faith from a war they consider an invasion.

Most telling are their priorities. They speak not of politics, not of ideology, but of survival.

"God willing, the war won't last long," Karima said. "I wish it wouldn't have lasted one day."

Sitting on mats lined against the wall, her daughters -- age 16, 15, 13, 12 and 11 -- giggled, awkward in the presence of a foreigner. Overhead was a portrait of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, a resonant symbol of suffering in Shiite theology. Hanging over a battered refrigerator, its white paint peeling and its rusted handle broken, was a porcelain blue plate that read "God."

"This war is such a loss," the mother whispered.

Karima's life has been a chain of tragedies, but she has proved resilient. Her husband died eight years ago. A driver for a Japanese company in Baghdad, he was killed in a wreck when another car's brakes malfunctioned. She lost her job as a maid when the Lebanese doctor she worked for left Iraq two years ago.

In January, she was evicted from her home, a garage in which the family had pirated running water and electricity. Her eldest son, the breadwinner, joined the army a year and a half ago. Another son, 18, got on the wrong side of the law and served five months in jail for stealing a car. She said the youngest son, 9, is too young to work.

She managed to find another apartment in a run-down building, wires hanging from the ceiling and tattered furniture stacked in the dilapidated hallways. But her rent is about $18 a month, a sum she has no chance of paying. She expects to be evicted again soon.

Now, she said, she is coping with war, and the dread it has brought. At first, many of her friends and relatives -- those with enough money -- fled the city. Her sister-in-law put only her children in a car for Syria, leaving everything else behind. "Whoever could, left," she said. "Whoever couldn't is sitting in their houses."

Then she dealt with spiraling prices, as residents made a run on stores to stock up on bottled water, rice, flour and beans, kerosene for cooking, and gas for their cars. A tray of 24 eggs went from 50 cents to $1.40. The price of slightly more than two pounds of potatoes -- a favorite for war-weary Baghdad because of their shelf life -- jumped more than three times in a week.

And then there's the seclusion. Schools were canceled three days before the war started, making Karima's children go stir-crazy in the suffocating confines of three rooms.

Karima said she was terrified of the bombing and afraid to go outside. When the explosions send shudders through their shoddily constructed building, she and her children run into the stairwell, joining another family huddled in darkness.

"We don't know what will happen. We don't know when it will happen," she said. "There's no life, there's no death. Only tension."

At night, they try to pick up the Arabic-language service of Radio Monte Carlo to hear what they consider unbiased reports on the war -- straining to hear the names of Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, Basra and Najaf. In silence, they listen for any detail on fighting in the north, where the eldest son is stationed.

When the war started, he had been at home. For one week each month, soldiers get leave, and he was spending his week here, working as a plumber. Karima said he hesitated only briefly to rejoin his unit.

"He wasn't scared," one daughter insisted.

Her mother shot her a look of disapproval. "Of course, he was scared. He's anxious. And we're anxious for him. But God is present."

Her other son picked up a gun, as well. He was released in an amnesty ordered by Hussein in October that emptied Iraq's jails of their prisoners. A ne'er-do-well, even by the accounts of his family, he joined the motley crowd of militiamen patrolling Baghdad's streets. In street clothes and carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, he looks after an antiaircraft gun parked in front of a school.

The family's view: He's looking for a fight.

In conversations in Baghdad -- always framed by the lurking menace of an omnipresent police state -- the conflict is rarely if ever talked about in terms of liberation. Those sentiments may exist, cloaked in the silence that talk of politics here provokes. But far more dominant, even in private, is a view that the war is imposed on people against their will, an intervention they resent.

Karima's Shiite family was no different. They spoke not of freedom, but of defending their faith.

The mention of liberation prompted them to shake their heads. They seemed angry, even bewildered, by a conflict that has left them guessing uneasily as to its outcome.

"The United States is strong," she said, nodding her head. "But God willing, we'll be stronger. We have right on our side. They attacked us. We didn't attack them. They have weapons, but we have God."

Her daughter, a vivacious girl of 13, joined in. "If you were sitting in your house and somebody attacks you, would you accept that? We won't accept somebody coming into our country. We'll defend our country, and we'll defend our home."

Of Iraq's many aggrieved parties, Shiite Muslims, the majority in Iraq, have perhaps suffered the most. Through three decades of Baath Party rule, they have endured bloody crackdowns, the forced exile of tens of thousands to neighboring Iran and the underdevelopment of the southern region where they predominate. The government has executed their religious leaders and, at times, publicly questioned their loyalty, given the community's historic ties to Shiite Iran.

Beyond the tired rhetoric in support of the Iraqi president, Karima's family had little to say about Hussein, whose visage glares down on Baghdad residents from every street corner, intersection, ministry and monument that shapes Baghdad's skyline.

To them, Hussein is not Iraq, and Iraq is not Hussein. Their country was the sacred cities of Najaf and Karbala, where members of Muhammad's family are buried. It is the cities from which their relatives came. And it is Baghdad, which they call theirs.

"If a foreigner wants to enter Baghdad in peace, we will welcome him like a brother," one daughter said. "If a foreigner wants to enter as an enemy, every family will go out and confront them, even with stones. If they don't throw rocks, then they'll throw dirt.

"Not only the Iraqi army will fight, but the families, the children, even the elderly will," she said.

Karima looked on approvingly. But her life served as a note of caution. No one wants to be occupied, she said, and no one wants a war. No one asked foreigners, be they the Americans or others, to invade Iraq. But tragedy has visited her time and again, and in the powerlessness those calamities provoke, the only recourse is God. Being in his hands, she said, is their only comfort.

"It's true we have to fight for the sake of our nation, land and culture," she said. But using an Arabic expression that signifies fatalism and helplessness, she said: "There's no life or power that does not come from God. What God wants will be."