Oliver Poole: What the war taught me

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

The match I had been invited to view was Iraq against Saudi Arabia, one of the best teams in the Middle East. It was being staged in Amman, the stadium in Baghdad not having recovered from when it was used as a base by the Americans and its pitch as a parking lot for their tanks.

The match started badly, the Saudis scoring early. But before half-time the Iraqi team got a goal through one of its Sunni players and in the second half they dominated. A Shia player scored, then in the 90th minute a Kurd, making it a victory secured by the three key elements of Iraq's population.

My friend ran to get the family's AK-47 and we all stood respectfully in the garden as a cacophony of shooting broke out across the city. He emptied a full magazine and turned to me. "See, we still have our pride!" he shouted.

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 United States. I was single and had spent most of my life travelling from one country to another, my priority being what might be the next exciting place to visit or story to cover.

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.

Yet what could be glimpsed was what happens when society breaks down and the old rules disappear. When wars go so badly wrong it creates an environment in which each individual is left free to set their own limits. Many people used this as an opportunity to explore how low they could go. But not all did.

Many individuals I knew and cared for decided that they would not bend to the evil that surrounded them. Their choices, unexpectedly, made the experience of having lived in that place at that time an inspiring one.

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 which had mould growing on the walls and a constant trickle of water flowing down the street outside. 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 – depressing in their predictability – and sectarian murders, victims with their bones smashed and flesh torn by electric drills. He had seen his brother-in-law and friends abducted, had his cousin mistakenly imprisoned by the Americans, had his neighbour die after being shot by a militia death squad and had to abandon his home, leaving all his possessions, after finding himself targeted because he worked for a foreign firm. 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.

The extract

Red Zone: Five bloody years in Baghdad
By Oliver Poole

'...He would suddenly slow down and give out a deep sigh as some black flowing sheet walked past us. "Did you see the body on that?" he would ask.

Under his tutelage I did develop an eye for it. I realised that not all jilbaab were the same, that some were tapered and closer cut than others. The real trick... was to see how they fell when their wearers were walking.... "Better than naked," he would say'

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