Spring 2003. American and British troops were fighting their way in to Iraq. I was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent, watching with frustration from neighbouring Jordan. I’d been expelled from Baghdad a few weeks earlier and couldn’t wait to get back.
Fast-forward to 9 April. As the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was torn down we prepared to set off, spending the night in the dusty no-man’s-land between Jordan and Iraq. A short while earlier, I had chosen a bright green, satin-covered sofa in the VIP section of the Iraqi border crossing to sleep on, but then gunfire forced us to retreat and I had to bed down on top of an armoured vehicle. There wasn’t much chance of a good night’s sleep in any case.
By the time we arrived in Baghdad a few hours later, most of the shooting of the war was over – for the time being at least. It was exhilarating to be able to speak openly to Iraqis for the first time. Many of them felt quietly humiliated by the sudden presence of US soldiers in their midst. But, for others, the overriding sentiment was one of joy at seeing the back of Saddam Hussein. The full horror of the past three decades came spilling out. A Shia cleric showed me deep, crater-like marks on his back, burn scars from where he had been lowered into a vat of acid in jail. I saw the torture implements said to have been wielded by Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday, including a large metal flower, inserted into the victim’s anus as a bud and then twisted open – releasing its sharp-ended petals – into an excruciating bloom. I watched as a young man called Nofal had surgery to give him prosthetic ears to replace the ones that had been cut off when he deserted the army. Usually a deserter lost only one ear, but the doctor administering the punishment had taken off the wrong ear, so both had had to go. Nofal was hoping his new ears would help him find a wife.
It was heartbreaking to watch women clawing through the earth at mass graves, desperately trying to find any remnant of their sons. Any bone or scrap of clothing was enough – they just wanted some part of their child to bury. A decade on, it is equally distressing to think how many horrors and burials, kidnappings and bombings lay ahead.
The portents of trouble were there from the start and it wasn’t only due to decisions such as the disbanding of the Iraqi army. In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, an American soldier asked me to explain to a crowd of angry Iraqis why the US military had blocked a major road, stopping all traffic. With no translator, he couldn’t get even a simple message across to them. Another soldier once barked at me: “Get off my road!” “Your road,” I thought. “Really?” It wasn’t an attitude that the Iraqis enjoyed.
It was Iraq’s borders – through which foreign jihadis would cross and cause havoc – that needed watching. A senior Australian coalition official once said to me: “We can’t organise ourselves, let alone a country.” It took weeks before a single salary was paid to government employees, including doctors and nurses who were using their savings to pay for taxi rides to work.
As the National Museum in Baghdad was looted and other state institutions were stripped bare, Iraqis asked why only the oil ministry was being protected. Whatever you think about the reasons that led Britain and the US to war, I still wonder how things might have turned out if only the coalition forces had been better prepared, and had been able to show the Iraqis they cared about them.
I remember the woman who said to me: “Iraq will be like Dubai, now. Maybe even better.” I’d love to find out what she thinks now. Late last year, I went back to Baghdad for the first time since 2005. Flying in was a revelation. Gone was the corkscrew landing to avoid missiles, though my stomach still lurched, returning to a place I had avoided for seven years because I didn’t want to watch anyone else die. I never again want to see a father run screaming down a hospital corridor holding a limbless, bloodied child. It is still happening – you just don’t hear about it much any more. Iraq Body Count lists the deaths of more than 4,500 civilians in 2012. Many more have seen their hopes dashed.
In a cramped home in the suburbs of Baghdad, we met a man called Saad who had just escaped from the mayhem in Syria and was camping with relatives. A Sunni married to a Shia, he fled Iraq at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war after receiving death threats. Now, he’d had to flee for his life a second time and was back in Baghdad, guilt-stricken about being unable to protect his nine-year-old daughter from the levels of violence she had witnessed. He was jobless, and hopeless. “I feel like I’m nothing,” he told me, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Saad’s shame reminded me of the humiliation felt by another man I once interviewed who had been jailed at Abu Ghraib. He was one of the Iraqis pictured in the infamous photograph of the naked pyramid of hooded men. He looked at his feet as he quietly recounted how they had been forced to masturbate each other for the soldiers’ entertainment. I visited Abu Ghraib the following year; the Americans were keen to show us how much had changed. Family visits were now allowed and young American soldiers were taking souvenir snaps of prisoners with their wives and children. The name of one of the tented camps for the detainees was Camp Redemption. Who was it, I wondered, who needed to be redeemed?
Iraq remains a troubled place. During my recent visit, I saw little of its restored oil wealth being spent on badly needed social services. The nation, collectively traumatised, has only three child psychiatrists. The ubiquitous checkpoints and blast walls fail to stop too many bombers. Iraqis complain of rampant corruption. Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government is seen as increasingly autocratic and its relations with the country’s Sunnis continue to sour. That Iraqis now seem to be fighting on both sides of Syria’s war – even if in small numbers – doesn’t bode well. I hope, for the Iraqis’ sake, for happier times ahead.
Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to 2005