Baghdad Burning

... I'll meet you 'round the bend my friend, where hearts can heal and souls can mend...

Monday, March 29, 2004
Tales from Abu Ghraib...
At precisely 5 p.m., yesterday afternoon, my mother suddenly announced that we were going to go visit a friend of hers who had recently had a minor operation. The friend lived two streets away and in Iraqi culture, it is obligatory to visit a sick or healing friend or relative. I tried to get out of the social call with a variety of tired excuses. It was useless- my mother was adamant.

We left the house at around 5:40, with me holding a box of chocolate and arrived at the friend's house less than five minutes later. After the initial greetings and words of sympathy and relief, we all filed into the living room. The living room was almost dark; the electricity was out and the drapes were open to let in the fading rays of sun. "The electricity should be back at six…" my mother's friend said apologetically, "That's why we haven't lighted the kerosene lamps."

Just as we were settling down, a figure sitting at the other end of the living room rose in a hurry. "Where are you going?!" cried out my mother's friend, Umm Hassen. She then turned to us and made a hasty introduction, "This is M.- she's a friend of the family… she's here to see Abu Hassen…" I peered hard across the darkening room to get a better look at the slight figure, but I couldn't make out her features. I could barely hear her voice as she said, "I really have to be going… it's getting dark…" Umm Hassen shook her head and firmly declared, "No- you're staying. Abu Hassen will drive you home later."

The figure sat down and an awkward silence ensued as Umm Hassen left the living room to bring tea from the kitchen. My mother broke the silence with a question, "Do you live nearby?" She asked the figure. "Not really… I live outside of Baghdad… on the southern edges, but I'm staying with some relatives a few streets away." I listened to the voice carefully and could tell that the girl was young- no more than 20 or 25… probably less.

Just as Umm Hassen walked into the room with the tea tray, the lights in the house flickered back to life and we all murmured a prayer of thanks. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the glaring yellow lights, I turned to get a better look at Umm Hassen's guest. I had been right- she was young. She couldn't have been more than 20. She was wearing a black shawl, thrown carelessly over dark brown hair which was slipping out from under the head cover. She clutched at a black handbag and as the lights came back on, she shrank into herself at the far end of the room.

"Why are you sitting all the way over there?" Scolded Umm Hassen fondly, "Come over here and sit." She nodded towards a large armchair next to our couch. The girl rose and I noticed for the first time just how slight her figure was- the long skirt and shirt hung off of her thin body like they belonged to someone else. She settled stiffly in the big chair and managed to look even smaller and younger.

"How old are you,M. ?" My mother asked kindly. "Nineteen." Came the reply. "And are you studying? Which college are you in?" The girl blushed furiously as she explained that she was studying Arabic literature but postponed the year because… "Because she was detained by the Americans." Umm Hassen finished angrily, shaking her head. "She's here to see Abu Hassen because her mother and three brothers are still in prison."

Abu Hassen is lawyer who has taken on very few cases since the end of the war. He explained once that the current Iraqi legal system was like a jungle with no rules, a hundred lions, and thousands of hyenas. No one was sure which laws were applicable and which weren't; nothing could be done about corrupt judges and police and it was useless taking on criminal cases because if you won, the murderer/thief/looter's family would surely put you in your grave… or the criminal himself could do it personally after he was let out in a few weeks.

This case was an exception. M. was the daughter of a deceased friend and she had come to Abu Hassen because she didn't know anyone else who was willing to get involved.

On a cold night in November, M., her mother, and four brothers had been sleeping when their door suddenly came crashing down during the early hours of the morning. The scene that followed was one of chaos and confusion… screaming, shouting, cursing, pushing and pulling followed. The family were all gathered into the living room and the four sons- one of them only 15- were dragged away with bags over their heads. The mother and daughter were questioned- who was the man in the picture hanging on the wall? He was M.'s father who had died 6 years ago of a stroke. You're lying, they were told- wasn't he a part of some secret underground resistance cell? M.'s mother was hysterical by then- he was her dead husband and why were they taking away her sons? What had they done? They were supporting the resistance, came the answer through the interpreter.

How were they supporting the resistance, their mother wanted to know? "You are contributing large sums of money to terrorists." The interpreter explained. The troops had received an anonymous tip that M.'s family were giving funds to support attacks on the troops.

It was useless trying to explain that the family didn't have any 'funds'- ever since two of her sons lost their jobs at a factory that had closed down after the war, the family had been living off of the little money they got from a 'kushuk' or little shop that sold cigarettes, biscuits and candy to people in the neighborhood. They barely made enough to cover the cost of food! Nothing mattered. The mother and daughter were also taken away, with bags over their heads.

Umm Hassen had been telling the story up until that moment, M. was only nodding her head in agreement and listening raptly, like it was someone else's story. She continued it from there… M. and her mother were taken to the airport for interrogation. M. remembers being in a room, with a bag over her head and bright lights above. She claimed she could see the shapes of figures through the little holes in the bag. She was made to sit on her knees, in the interrogation room while her mother was kicked and beaten to the ground.

M.'s hands trembled as she held the cup of tea Umm Hassen had given her. Her face was very pale as she said, "I heard my mother begging them to please let me go and not hurt me… she told them she'd do anything- say anything- if they just let me go." After a couple hours of general abuse, the mother and daughter were divided, each one thrown into a seperate room for questioning. M. was questioned about everything concerning their family life- who came to visit them, who they were related to and when and under what circumstances her father had died. Hours later, the mother and daughter were taken to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison- home to thousands of criminals and innocents alike.

In Abu Ghraib, they were seperated and M. suspected that her mother was taken to another prison outside of Baghdad. A couple of terrible months later- after witnessing several beatings and the rape of a male prisoner by one of the jailors- in mid-January, M. was suddenly set free and taken to her uncle's home where she found her youngest brother waiting for her. Her uncle, through some lawyers and contacts, had managed to extract M. and her 15-year-old brother from two different prisons. M. also learned that her mother was still in Abu Ghraib but they weren't sure about her three brothers.

M. and her uncle later learned that a certain neighbor had made the false accusation against her family. The neighbor's 20-year-old son was still bitter over a fight he had several years ago with one of M.'s brothers. All he had to do was contact a certain translator who worked for the troops and give M.'s address. It was that easy.

Abu Hassen was contacted by M. and her uncle because he was an old family friend and was willing to do the work free of charge. They have been trying to get her brothers and mother out ever since. I was enraged- why don't they contact the press? Why don't they contact the Red Cross?! What were they waiting for?! She shook her head sadly and said that they *had* contacted the Red Cross but they were just one case in thousands upon thousands- it would take forever to get to them. As for the press- was I crazy? How could she contact the press and risk the wrath of the American authorities while her mother and brothers were still imprisoned?! There were prisoners who had already gotten up to 15 years of prison for 'acting against the coallition'... she couldn't risk that. They would just have to be patient and do a lot of praying.

By the end of her tale, M. was crying silently and my mother and Umm Hassen were hastily wiping away tears. All I could do was repeat, "I'm so sorry... I'm really sorry..." and a lot of other useless words. She shook her head and waved away my words of sympathy, "It's ok- really- I'm one of the lucky ones... all they did was beat me."

Saturday, March 27, 2004
Raed in the Middle...
Raed of Where is Raed? has started his own blog! You can check out Raed's independent views at Raed in the Middle...

The telephone wasn't working these last few days. It will do that every once in a while- disappear coyly. We pick up the receiver and instead of a dial tone, hear nothing but a strange sort of silence laced with static. It almost drove me crazy because I couldn't connect to the internet. I spent the days hovering anxiously around the telephone, picking it up every few minutes and calling out "Allooo? Allooooooo?" E. asked around and learned that the lines in the whole area were down.

I was in Karrada yesterday- a popular area in central Baghdad. It's a mercantile district where you can find everything from butchers to ice cream shops. The stores are close together and it's the ideal area to go looking for something you're not sure you'll find. You'll find it in Karrada- whether it's a gold bracelet or fuzzy slippers or the complete, unabridged collection of the late Al-Hakeem's religious lectures on CD.

My uncle is planning a trip to Jordan so we had to buy him some luggage. I had been looking forward to the shopping trip for at least 4 days which is how long it takes to get the routine familial permission these days. First, I have to make a declaration of intent; I have to tell the parents that I intend to go out and purchase something. Then, I have to specify the area where I intend to make the purchase, after which comes locating a free male relative with some extra time on his hands to join me in the adventure. The final step is setting the date and time and getting the final household authorization.

For those of you wondering, YES, it annoys me beyond anything that, at my age, I have to get parental permission to leave the house. It's a trend that started after the war and doesn't look like it's going to abate any time soon. I comfort myself with the thought that it's not specific to my household or even my gender- all parents seem to be doing it lately… where are you going? To do what? Who is going with you? What time will you be back? Is it absolutely necessary?

If E. and I are half an hour late, we can come home expecting to see one of the parents standing outside, in the driveway, pacing anxiously and peering out into the street every once in a while. I can't really blame them- with all the abductions, explosions and detentions. On the other hand, if one of the parents are late, E. and I also end up in the driveway, squinting into the night and mumbling about people who never phone to say they’re going to be late.

Karrada was quite crowded with people coming and going. Women, of course, were a startling minority. Karrada used to be full of women- mothers, daughters and wives sometimes alone and sometimes dragging along a weary male. As we got out of the car, my confidence and enthusiasm began to wane. I was one of the few women on the street not wearing a hijab, or head-cover. One, two, three women passed by with the hijab covering their hair… the fourth one had gone a step further and was wearing an abbaya or black cloak… I tugged gently at the sleeves of my shirt which were cuffed almost to my elbows. They slid down once more to my wrists and I was suddenly grateful that I had decided to wear a long denim skirt.

We walked the few meters to the display of suitcases on the sidewalk. The suitcases were mostly new but some were used and a little faded around the edges. I wondered if they had been hijacked from some unfortunate Iraqi who had come from abroad. E. and my cousin stood haggling with the suitcase man. He was showing them a Korean knockoff of Samsonite and swearing it was the original. For those who have never shopped in Iraq- nothing costs as much as the first price they give you. If the man says 10,000 Iraqi Dinars, you can instantly challenge him with, "I'll buy it for 7,000" and be quite confident that he'll give in the end with some minor grumbling.

I studied the streets and surrounding shops while I waited. The street was crowded with cars- mostly old ones. Few people dare to drive around in decent vehicles. The traffic flow kept stopping every few minutes and a choir of honking and swearing would instantly start up. Heads would pop out of car windows and eyes would strain to see what could possibly be keeping the long line of cars in front.

There were some strange-looking people in the street- heads covered in turbans, black and white… women shrouded from top to bottom in black cloth… men with long beards and abbayas. I was getting quite a few critical stares- why wasn't this girl wearing a hijab? The rational person in me was asking the same question- why aren't you wearing one? Is it too much to ask for you to throw something on top of your head when you leave the house? Everyone else is doing it… most of the women you know are just flinging on a head-cover to avoid those disapproving glares and harsh words. Ever since the war, even some Christian women have been pressured into hiding their hair- especially in the south. And on and on went the rational voice… The stubborn voice- the one that blogs- tried to drown out common sense with, "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah... we won't be pressured..."

I focused my attention on the shops around me, staring hard at the displays in the windows. Many of the windows showed posters of the Imam Hussein, Al-Sadr, one or more of the Hakeems and there were so many pictures of Sistani both outside and inside of shops that I decided the area should change its name from Karrada to 'Sistanistan'.

After almost 10 minutes of selecting and bartering, E. and my cousin had decided on one large black suitcase and a smaller one. E. counted out the money patiently as the suitcase man swore he was being robbed by selling the suitcases for such a meager sum. My cousin went to open the trunk of the car and I helped the suitcase man wrap the luggage in a large plastic bag.

Before we got into the car to go home, E. asked me if there was anything else I wanted to get- did I want to see the shops? A part of me *did* want to take a more thorough look around, but another part of me was both physically and mentally exhausted with the rare outing. I just wanted to get back to the safety of our home where I didn't have to feel like some sort of strange outcast.

This time of year is the closest we get to spring. April promises to be hot and sticky... I used to constantly yearn to be outside- not just on the roof or in the garden- but on a street or sidewalk with people coming and going around me. That need hits me less and less of late...

Saturday, March 20, 2004
The War on Terror...
I'm feeling irritable and angry today. It's exactly a year since the war on Iraq began and it seems to be weighing heavily on everyone.

Last year, on this day, the war started during the early hours of the morning. I wasn't asleep… I hadn't slept since Bush's ultimatum a couple of days before. It wasn't because I was scared but because I didn't want to be asleep when the bombs started falling. The tears started falling with the first few thuds. I'm not very prone to tears, but that moment, a year ago today, I felt such sorrow at the sound of those bombs. It was a familiar feeling because it wasn't, after all, the first time America was bombing us. It didn’t seem fair that it was such a familiar feeling.

I felt horrible that Baghdad was being reduced to rubble. With every explosion, I knew that some vital part of it was going up in flames. It was terrible and I don't think I'd wish it on my worst enemy. That was the beginning of the 'liberation'… a liberation from sovereignty, a certain sort of peace, a certain measure of dignity. We've been liberated from our jobs, and our streets and the sanctity of our homes… some of us have even been liberated from the members of our family and friends.

A year later and our electricity is intermittent, at best, there constantly seems to be a fuel shortage and the streets aren't safe. When we walk down those streets, on rare occasions, the faces are haggard and creased with concern… concern over family members under detention, homes raided by Americans, hungry mouths to feed, and family members to keep safe from abduction, rape and death.

And where are we now, a year from the war? Sure- we own satellite dishes and the more prosperous own mobile phones… but where are we *really*? Where are the majority?

We're trying to fight against the extremism that seems to be upon us like a black wave; we're wondering, on an hourly basis, how long it will take for some semblance of normality to creep back into our lives; we're hoping and praying against civil war…

We're watching with disbelief as American troops roam the streets of our towns and cities and break violently into our homes... we're watching with anger as the completely useless Puppet Council sits giving out fat contracts to foreigners and getting richer by the day- the same people who cared so little for their country, that they begged Bush and his cronies to wage a war that cost thousands of lives and is certain to cost thousands more.

We're watching sardonically as an Iranian cleric in the south turns a once secular country into America's worst nightmare- a carbon copy of Iran. We're watching as the lies unravel slowly in front of the world- the WMD farce and the Al-Qaeda mockery.

And where are we now? Well, our governmental facilities have been burned to the ground by a combination of 'liberators' and 'Free Iraqi Fighters'; 50% of the working population is jobless and hungry; summer is looming close and our electrical situation is a joke; the streets are dirty and overflowing with sewage; our jails are fuller than ever with thousands of innocent people; we've seen more explosions, tanks, fighter planes and troops in the last year than almost a decade of war with Iran brought; our homes are being raided and our cars are stopped in the streets for inspections… journalists are being killed 'accidentally' and the seeds of a civil war are being sown by those who find it most useful; the hospitals overflow with patients but are short on just about everything else- medical supplies, medicine and doctors; and all the while, the oil is flowing.

But we've learned a lot. We've learned that terrorism isn't actually the act of creating terror. It isn't the act of killing innocent people and frightening others… no, you see, that's called a 'liberation'. It doesn't matter what you burn or who you kill- if you wear khaki, ride a tank or Apache or fighter plane and drop missiles and bombs, then you're not a terrorist- you're a liberator.

The war on terror is a joke… Madrid was proof of that last week… Iraq is proof of that everyday.

I hope someone feels safer, because we certainly don't.

Friday, March 19, 2004
The explosion two days ago was a colossal one. Our area isn't very close to the area that got bombed, but we heard it loud and clear. It was one of several explosions during this last week… but it was the biggest. The moment it happened, E. and I started trying to guess where the noise was coming from. It has become a sort of morbid game.

Al-Jazeera almost instantly began covering the explosion and we found out that E. was right- it was in Karada (I get the direction wrong 90% of the time and E. chauvinistically assures me that a warped sense of direction is quite common to most females). A hotel in the middle of a residential area was bombed and the stories vary in a strange sort of way. People in the area claim they heard the hissing of a rocket and then an explosion. Others say that it was an instant explosion. One news network is claiming that 32 bodies have been taken out of the rubble… another mentioned 17 and the Iraqi police are saying that only 6 were found. Reports on the nationalities of the deceased also vary- the Iraqi police are claiming all the residents of the hotel were Iraqi and the Americans are saying that there were some Americans and Brits among the dead. Who to believe?

Last Saturday and Sunday there were demonstrations in Baghdad. Students weren't allowed into Baghdad University because the university guards (ironically appointed by the Americans) wouldn't let anyone in. They are part of Sistani's gang and since Sistani's followers have diligently been objecting the TAL document signed by the Puppet Council, the guards decided that college would be closed for a couple of days. The students had to watch the dean of the engineering college beg to be let in, and refused.

I found out about the demonstrations because I was supposed to have a job interview on Saturday and my potential employers called me postponing it until further notice because their guards- avid Sistani fans- had decided to take the day off to join the demonstration objecting the TAL. Sistani's followers would not be out protesting the transitional law document if they didn't have explicit directions from him- so

Mustansiryia University (another major university in Baghdad) is full of student protests because the dean of the college of science requested that after the arba'een (40th day after the death of Imam Al-Hussein), the students take down the black flags and pictures of Al-Sadr and Sistani. The more conservative Shi'a students immediately took offence and decided that they wouldn't attend classes until the dean was fired. In retaliation, Sunni students decided they would organize a *protest* to the strike organized by the Shi'a students…

We also heard that one of the assistant deans of the college of engineering in Baghdad University was assassinated recently. It's terrible news and the subject has been on my mind a lot lately. I don't know why no one focuses on this topic in the news. It's like Iraq is suffering from intellectual hemorrhaging. Professors and scientists are being assassinated right and left- decent intelligent people who are necessary for the future of Iraq. Other scientists are being detained by the Americans and questioned about- of all things- Al-Qaeda.

The stories they tell after being let go are incredible. Most of the scientists are college professors and have dedicated their lives to teaching and research. Many are detained only because they specialize in a certain field, like heredity, for example. One man who was recently let go told about the ridiculous interrogation that lasted 3 days and involved CIA and military police. They showed him picture after picture of his family, confiscated from the family home during a raid, and kept pointing at his two teenage sons and their friends and asking, "Aren't they a part of Al-Qaeda?!"

And it doesn't stop with the scientists. Doctors are also being assassinated by some mysterious group. It started during the summer and has been continuing since then. Iraq has some of the finest doctors in the region. Since June, we've heard of at least 15 who were killed in cold blood. The stories are similar- a car pulls up to the clinic or office, a group of men in black step down and the doctor is gunned down- sometimes in front of the patients and sometimes all alone, after hours. One doctor was shot brutally in his house, in front of his family. There was a rumor that Badir's Brigade (the SCIRI militia led by Al-Hakeem) had a list out of 72 doctors that had to be killed for one reason or another. They include Sunni, Shi'a and Christian doctors.

Scientists, professors and doctors who aren't detained or assassinated all seem to be looking for a way out. It seems like everyone you talk to is keeping their eyes open for a job opportunity outside of the country. It depresses me. When I hear someone talking about how they intend to leave to Dubai or Lebanon or London, I want to beg them to stay… a part of me wants to scream, "But we need you here! You belong here!" Another more rational part of me knows that some of them have no options. Many have lost their jobs and don't know how to feed their families. Others just can't stand the constant worrying about their children or spouse. Many of the female doctors and scientists want to leave because it's no longer safe for women to work like before. For some, the option is becoming a housewife or leaving abroad to look for the security to work.

Whatever the reason, the brains are slowly seeping out of Iraq. It's no longer a place for learning or studying or working… it's a place for wealthy contractors looking to get wealthier, extremists, thieves (of all ranks and origins) and troops…

Friday, March 12, 2004
Discussions around the dinner table mainly focus on the Transitional Law these days. I asked a friend to print out the whole thing for me and have been looking it over these last two days. I watched only a part of the ceremony because the electricity went out in the middle of it and I didn't bother watching a recap of it later on.

The words look good on paper- as words often do. Some parts of it sound hauntingly like our last constitution. The discussions about the Transitional Law all focus on the legitimacy of this document. Basically, an occupying power brought in a group of exiles, declared Iraq 'liberated', declared the constitution we've been using since the monarchy annulled and set up a group of puppets as a Governing Council. Can these laws be considered legitimate?

Furthermore, just how sincere are these puppets about this new Transitional Law? For example, there's a lovely clause that reads, "No one may be unlawfully arrested or detained, and no one may be detained by reason of political or religious beliefs." Will the American troops discontinue the raids and arbitrary detentions (which are still quite common) come June 30? Or is the Transitional Law binding only to Iraqis?

One example of an arbitrary detention we heard about the other day was of a man who was arrested in Tikrit. They raided his home and gathered the 25-year-old man, two brothers and an elderly uncle. They got the usual treatment: a bag on the head, and hands behind their backs. They were taken to a place outside of Tikrit and thrown into a barn-like area with bags on their heads- still tied up. For 3 days, they were kicked and cursed by the troops. In between the kicking and cursing, a hefty soldier would scream questions at them and an interpreter would translate, "Are you part of Al-Qaeda?! Do you know Osama bin Laden?!" On the third day, one of the young men struck up a deal with who he gathered was their 'head'- the man who gave all the orders. They agreed that one of the soldiers would accompany the man back to the city and wait while he came up with $300/detainee. The rest of the men would be freed a couple of days later.

And it worked. Two days later, his three relatives came walking home after being dropped off on the side of the road. Basically, they paid a ransom for their freedom. Just one of the many stories about life in the 'New Iraq'- no wonder Chalabi was so jubilant while signing the Transitional Law document. The country is currently like an unguarded bank- especially for those who bear arms.

The general attitude towards the document is a certain weariness. Iraqis are weary of everything 'transitional' and 'temporary'. I guess, after almost a year of instability and strife, we just crave something more definite and substantial.

Spring is in the air- and that means dust storms and a mellow sun for Iraqis. We're enjoying the weather because by the end of April, summer will be in full swing and the heat will come in almost palpable waves. The mornings are slightly cool and by noon we've shed the jackets. We no longer need the 'sopas' or kerosene heaters at home- which is a relief to E. who has been designated the job of filling them up and making sure the kerosene tank in the yard is always full (the kerosene man has become a dear friend).

These last few days have brought back memories of the same dates, last year. What were we doing in early March? We were preparing for the war… digging wells, taping up windows, stocking up on candles, matches, kerosene, rice, flour, bandages, and medicine… and what are we doing now? Using them.

Saturday, March 06, 2004
Sistani and the Green Zone...
Today was a mess. It feels like half of Baghdad was off-limits. We were trying to get from one end to the other to visit a relative and my cousin kept having to take an alternate route. There's a huge section cut off to accomodate the "Green Zone" which seems to be expanding. We joke sometimes saying that they're just going to put a huge wall around Baghdad, kick out the inhabitants and call it the "Green City". It is incredibly annoying to know that parts of your city are inaccessible in order to accomodate an occupation army.

Another section was cut off because there was some sort of crisis unfolding in or around the Ministry of Health. We later learned that former employees- some fired before the war and others fired during the occupation- had invaded the ministry and were trying to break into the minister's office. They were demanding work and some channels even mentioned a hostage situation. All we know is that there was a huge, angry mob outside of the ministry and tanks, cars and angry soldiers facing them. They say almost 1,300 employees working with the Ministry of Health have been fired since the end of the war. This includes doctors, nurses, hospital guards, etc.

Today the Iraqi Puppet Council was attempting to sign the Basic Law document which is sort of a prelude to a permanent constitution. I want to read it and see what it's about. They had everything set up in an elegant conference room- chrome and gray chairs with name tags on them, expensive pens ready for the GC members, a podium, a bunch of little kids ready to sing and a little orchestra to play music. They didn't sign the long-awaited document. Some of the Shi'a members of the council refused to sign it because, apparently, there had been disagreements to the presidency, women's rights, federalism and, generally, the constitution- should they ever decide to draft one.

Al-Sistani appears to be running the show, along with Bremer. I don't know why they don't just set up an office for him in the Green Zone- it would make things much easier for the GC members. They wouldn't have to keep running down to Karbala to beg for his approval. It's unbelievable. Sistani is a respectable cleric. He has millions of followers both inside and outside of Iraq... but when you get down to it, he is Iranian. How is it that an Iranian cleric is moulding the future of Iraq?

His opinion is important in many ways- but he seems to have some sort of invisible veto within the Council. All he has to do is murmur disapproval in the ears of one of his followers and it is immediate dissent with his followers. It is so frustrating. How is Iraq going to be secular and, well, *Iraqi* if we have a cleric of Iranian origin making conditions and rules?!

You can read more about the constitutional mess over at Juan Cole and Back to Iraq.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Ashoura Tragedy...
The explosions in Karbala and Kadhimiya were horrible. We heard the ones in Kadhimiya from a distance. There were a couple of dull thuds and we didn't know what it was. We found out later on the news and everyone has been horrified ever since. It's so hard to believe this has happened. The shots on Al-Arabia and the other channels were terrible- body parts everywhere- people burning alive... who could do this? We've all been asking each other that... who would have anything to gain from this?

Fingers are being pointed everywhere. Everyone has been afraid that this will be the metaphorical straw that breaks the camels back- except it's not a straw... it's more like an iron anchor that is just to heavy to carry. Fortunately, the reactions have been sane, yet sorrowful. Sunnis and Shi'a are sticking together... more now than ever before. It's like this catastrophe somehow made everyone realize that there are outside forces trying to drive us all apart and cause unrest or 'fitna'. People are refusing to believe that this was done by Iraqis. It's impossible. It's inexcusable and there is nothing that can justify it.

We were extremely worried because we have some relatives who make the annual trip to Karbala every year. They live in an area with no working telephones so E. and my cousin had to go over there and check things out for themselves. We found out that they had decided against going this year because the situation was so unstable. I'm worried now about Salam- he wrote on his blog that he was going to Karbala this year with his family. I hope he's ok.

I guess we've all been expecting some sort of attack or riots or something... this tragedy was still unexpected. You sometimes think that you've seen all the violence there is- every single type- and there is nothing that will shock you anymore. This was a shock, and a painful one too. Today was an official day of mourning over the victims who died in Karbala and Kadhimiya. The mosques have been offering prayers for the victims and the mosque sheikhs have been condemning the bombings.

Before Ashoura, there was a lot of talk about civil war. We talk about it like it concerns a different set of people, in another country. I guess that is because none of us can believe that anyone we know could be capable of senseless violence. After this massacre, and after seeing the reactions of Sunnis and Shi'a alike, my faith in the sense and strength of Iraqis has been reaffirmed. It has been like a large family- with many serious differences- reuniting after a terrible tragedy to comfort eachother and support one another.

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