A Maqawim of Adhamiya
I was too small to participate in the events of this story but I was old enough to see them. It was 2006, Baghdad.
The Americans had overthrown the Saddam regime, taken control of the city and disbanded the army. The army included the barracks and administrative staff of the Baath party so if you had gun you wanted to return, you physically couldn't. Shortly after that you could buy a grenade at a public market for two dollars and an AK for five.
Everybody hated the American solders but most of the fighting was amongst ourselves. The civil war had hit its peak and the Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods had divided up into militias, attacking and raiding each other on their weekends breaks. During the day they would go to their jobs and at night arm themselves and attack their neighbours.
I was 11 when I saw my first corpse. Militiamen from my neighbourhood pulled over a mini-van, dragged a guy out accusing him of being from the other side,. They cut his throat on the side of the street. I don't know if he was really a militiaman.
The fighting was chaos, some of the fighters were Al-Qaida, some were criminals looking to snatch their favourite car and some of them were just groups of locals trying to defend their streets. It was an impossible situation. If you killed a militiaman even in self-defence his friends would seek revenge on you, your family or you know … both, there wasn't any police to stop them. Their job was to clean up after the fighting had ended. The strategy on my street was to hide when the fighting started.
I lived in Adhamiya, in north Baghdad, a large neighbourhood in the centre of the northern city. It had both wide and narrow streets, with a mix of older architecture and new buildings mostly low rise. There were olive and date trees lining it’s streets but most of them had died out because of vandalism or the municipality’s lack of money. The district had been famous for clothes shops, though they hadn’t been open since the middle of 2006, the owners didn't live nearby couldn't make it to their shops because it was so dangerous.
The district was surrounded by a river on one side and three Shia neighbourhoods on the other side. The main street through my part of town was Omar Street a major shopping street with real estate offices, small shops selling spare parts for cars, gyms, there had been a restaurant but it was a ruin. This road ran up to Antar Square an important five way crossroads. If you held it you could cut off supplies to the whole area. The square had a statue of Antar on a horse, he’d had a sword but people got drunk and had managed to shoot half of it down. The Americans were based in an old regime palace and fortress, using it to launch their operations in north Baghdad. Despite being two hundred meters from this vital square where there could be fighting two or three times a week they did nothing to stop it. A serious night of fighting was good news for me; it meant no school for me the next day, or bad; no bread for breakfast. In an environment like that if you held a gun you were on one side or the other, neutrality wasn't possible. One person who tried to walk that line was Raidh.
This isn’t even my story, like I said I was too small, it’s really the story of Raidh. I’d known him my whole life. He was the kind of man I wanted to be when I was older.
He was the friend of my cousin and practically family. My father saw him as a son and treated him as such ever since his own father had been executed by the Sadam regime. He was a big guy, not fat, not muscly, just a big guy. He used to smile a lot and crack jokes whenever possible. One day he knocked on my door saying that “there is a katyusha missile coming and we should open the windows to stop them shattering.” Five seconds after we heard the sound of an explosion. I turned to him to see him prone on the ground. I asked him what happened. “I was hugging the drains” he replied and laughed.
He was braver than my cousins. When the shit hit the fan and my cousins hid playing PS1 he picked up his gun and went out. While they played Pro Evolution Soccer 99, he defended our street.
The street I lived on was connected to Omar Street, wide enough to play football in, lined with two story houses painted white or brown. The smell of the broken sewer was almost covered up by the white flowers of a lovingly watered Naranji tree. People would sit outside and discuss politics, mainly what the Americans were doing, who had joined what terrorist group or resistance cell, that or the football. They generally supported either Real Madrid or Barcelona. Until the fighting restarted when they went inside. Because of the very real threat of fighting people had to cut down the date palms and lay them at the end of the street to make a barricade.
It was each street for itself. There weren’t any uniforms or colours, they did battle in shimagh headscarfs, jeans, and traditional dishdashah tucked into their boxers so they could run faster. People didn't cover their faces unless they were fighting the Americans, If you didn't know who somebody was you hid from them or shot at them. Friendly fire was possible between people. One day we were informed that a militia was about to attack.
One of my neighbours told my father “I’m going to dig out my RPK go to the roof and shoot at anything that moves at the end of the street.”
He saw four men at the end of the road and opened up with the light machine gun. He pinned them down, after about ten minuets of shooting a guy came from the other end of the street shouting, “What are you doing these are our own men!” they’d been a group of five, the first had made it across unnoticed then gone round the back to stop the gunfire.
Our street wasn't very well defended. While my cousins played on their PlayStation the neighbourhood was kept safe by accident. Our street was so passive that it got nicknamed Woman Street. Raidh was our fighter.
He done his military service and like everybody else had kept his gun. When the neighbourhood started defending itself from the militias raids that was his call of duty. Usually there were guys going street-to-street warning people about raids and calling people out to fight. Raidh would answer. It was never quite the same group of people. When my father asked him why he when out onto the streets, he would say “My friends want to play PlayStation. I want to defend them.” His mother asked him the same question and he gave the same answer.
I remember one day when all I could hear was bullets. Raidh was out of the house as usual. My father was worried so he tried to call him, but couldn't get an answer. I don't remember how long my father was trying to get through to him but the fighting went on for at least forty-five minuets. When the gunfire died down, Raidh appeared at the end of the street with a big smile on his face.
My father asked him, “Where have you been, really?”
“Why where you calling me?” he answered. “I was trying to put the phone on silent while shooting.” He made and odd gesture like a bird wing, tapping his pocket with his trigger arm laughing as he did so.
My father didn't know how to respond to that. The situation was so intense that all he could was laugh as well. That night the same militia came back and Raidh went out to fight again.
Another night he called my father “A’moo, you wont believe what happened.”
“What happened?” My father asked.
Raihd said, “I’m holding a shaheed’s (martyr’s) position.”
“How did you get it?”
“He died, the guy who was holding it.” Raihd replied happily.
My father, obviously angry said, “What are you happy about? You’re going to get shot too, idiot!”
Raidh ended the call by saying “They might be coming back I’ll talk to you later.”
It seemed to me at the time that every night he’d go out with his gun to defend us. As an eleven year old he was the bravest person I knew.
I heard that during one of the longest battles, one that lasted three straight days he fought so much that he ran out of ammunition. I don't know the details but that was Baghdad in 2006/2007. After that raid, Raidh and his comrades set about retrieving any ammunition from dead militiamen that was when the Americans decided to leave their palace.
This was the situation all through 2007 into 2008 when the al-sahwa movement started. Citizens from the Sunni districts put pressure on the government and the American to kick out Al-Qaida out of their neighbourhoods. The civil war was dying out, and Baghdad started to blossom again. The clothes shops opened again the restaurant on Omar Street opened its doors again. There weren’t any bodies on the street or robberies in the night. I could go out more, to the Internet cafes and school on a regular basis. Teachers actually came to teach us. The whole city felt safer.
Some people chose to remain with their self-defence groups defending their homes as they had been through the civil war. Raidh didn't go down that route, he had studies to get back to and a wedding to arrange.
Despite the fighting he’d somehow managed to get engaged and had just signed his wedding contract. I don't remember anything about her unfortunately; it was not the kind of thing a 13 year old knew much about.
He died at the end of 2008.
An American patrol was going down Omar Street back to their palace, when an IED blew-up, not damaging the Humvee but shaking up the solders.
They opened up with their fifty-cals on top of the Humvee firing blind into the buildings and racing down the street trying to get back to their base. Raidh as he always did went out to investigate. His mother behind him he leaned his head out of his front door. A bullet went through the wall and hit him in the neck.
By Taher Raad
Transcribed by Luke Frostick