Baghdad’s garbage-strewn streets are a rich repository for tragedies. Under every crumbling rooftop and through every shrapnel-scarred doorway there is someone who can tell a story of pain and loss. Stories are what Baghdad is famous for, ever since Scheherazade sat down at the feet of her sultan and wove a web of tales that lasted 1,001 nights. But she was telling stories to save her life. These days, Baghdad’s residents tell stories to make sense of theirs.
They are of dead husbands and brothers, and of shattered communities where violence has pitted neighbour against neighbour. Often the tales begin like this: “My husband left the house one day and he never came back.” That is how Umm Hussein begins her story. “It was a Tuesday morning and he went to look for a place to live in a Shia neighbourhood,” she says, in her father-in-law’s house in Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Adhamiya district, remembering in painful detail what life was like in 2006, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war. “We’d found a note just a few days earlier that said all the Shia must leave this neighbourhood or they would be killed. My husband was Shia.”
Umm Hussein is a Sunni. Her husband was Shia. Their union dated from another time, when Sunni and Shia lived side by side in peace, sharing each others’ miseries in a country crippled by suffering. On that morning, for the sake of his family’s safety, he, along with his two brothers, left Adhamiya and walked out into Baghdad’s civil war. That was the last time Umm Hussein saw any of them alive. “We picked up their bodies a few days later at Medical City,” she says, referring to the vast medical complex in central Baghdad where most of this city’s victims of sectarian violence ended up, their bodies piled one on top of the other in the morgue’s freezers. “We were lucky; they’d only been shot in the head. We saw other bodies that were in much worse condition, with their fingers cut off, heads missing. It was a horrible scene.”
The carnage that gripped Baghdad during those gruesome years remains an indelible scar on Baghdad’s collective psyche. It began soon after the 2003 invasion, and at its height left nearly 100 tortured and broken bodies a day scattered around the desolate alleyways of this divided city. In what could be called a novel twist to an all-too-common Iraqi tale, Umm Hussein’s husband and his brothers were killed by Shia militiamen who mistook them for Sunnis. That’s how random Baghdad’s sectarian killings were: the slightest suspicion of belonging to the wrong sect could mark a man for death.
“We don’t even know why the Sunnis and Shia started killing each other,” says Umm Ali, Umm Hussein’s 55-year-old mother, holding back tears at the thought of her dead son-in-law. Both mother and daughter refuse to give their full names, instead using the common Arab practice of associating names with offspring (Umm Ali means “mother-of-Ali”—the younger woman’s brother—Umm Hussein means “mother-of-Hussein”—her five-year-old son). The fact that both males are named after Shia-revered saints is in itself telling.
Umm Hussein still lives with her husband’s family in Adhamiya. “I never wanted to leave,” says Adil Jawad Sayed, her 64-year-old father-in-law, barely able to disguise his anger. “I told my sons to stay as well. We were all born in this neighbourhood—our neighbours knew us, they protected us. But my sons wouldn’t listen. These wives pushed them to go, and now they are dead.” Umm Hussein appears not to notice the accusation, or chooses to ignore it. It is customary, Umm Hussein says, for the husband’s family to look after her and her two children, though she admits she couldn’t go home to her relatives even if she wanted to—they are too poor.
Her Shia husband and his two brothers had all married Sunni women from Adhamiya, and they were proud of it. Adhamiya boasts some of the most beautiful women in Baghdad, the local men say—a prized possession in this unabashedly male-dominated society. The husbands went off to work every day and the three women tended to the household chores, building sisterly bonds that would ultimately survive all of the horrors that were to follow.
Then the trouble started. “It wasn’t all of sudden,” says Umm Hussein, who was 22 at the time, with a two-year-old boy. “A few bodies here and there, always Shia. We heard stories about Sunni men being killed in other parts of the city but it all seemed so far away at the time. We never imagined how far it would go.” But as the killings escalated, so did the mistrust in her neighbourhood. Strange faces started to turn up, “outsiders” from insurgent groups who gained a foothold in the district. Local men, mostly poor youth, were recruited into these groups with what Umm Hussein calls “promises of fortune and glory.”
It had nothing to do with religion. “There used to be no difference between Sunni and Shia,” says Sayed, “except that we prayed at different mosques. We lived together, we married each other, we fasted together. We are all Muslims.” But the Sunni and Shia death squads behind the killings saw things differently. Young men of fighting age from the opposing sect were a threat. Adhamiya quickly turned into a killing field.
“It was bad,” Umm Hussein says. “Every time I left the house, I feared for my life. I thought everyone knew I was married to a Shia and they would kill me because of that.” Now that there is some semblance of peace in Adhamiya, she is allowing herself a small window of hope. “The Sahwa are looking after things now,” she says, referring to the former Sunni insurgents, some of whom themselves are likely guilty of sectarian killings, who, at the end of 2006, joined the American-led fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and bringing a sudden, albeit tentative, halt to the bulk of the fighting. “They helped me open my shop. They protect us now.”
That clothing and accessories shop the Sahwa helped her establish provides a meagre income for herself and the rest of her father-in-law’s household. Meanwhile, Shias who fled are slowly returning. A local Sahwa administrator says 100 Shia families have returned to their homes. “We never forced these families to leave,” he insists. “It was these foreigners, these al-Qaeda fighters, who were responsible. That’s part of the reason we drove them out of here.” At least that’s the thread the story of Adhamiya is taking now. The same excuse is embraced in Shia districts: it wasn’t us, the local Shia say, it was outsiders. We love our Sunni brothers and sisters.
But it’s a strange kind of love, one that can turn to hatred at any moment. At Umm Hussein’s home, the tension is thick; she is too nervous to speak freely, she says, but walking the short 500 m to her clothing shop she feels less restricted. “My father-in-law controls everything,” she says there. He wants to kick out the three sisters-in-law, she adds, “because we are Sunnis. He takes all of the money I earn at the shop and spends it on his own family.”
The Sahwa have promised to help. At their local office in her neighbourhood, Umm Hussein pleads with one of the militiamen to force her father-in-law to return $2,000 she claims he stole from her. “We will talk to him,” the militiaman says. “Don’t worry. You are Sunni. We are with you.” Umm Hussein admits it is the Sunnis, and only the Sunnis, who look after her. They helped her open up her clothing store, the only means for her family to survive Iraq’s crippling poverty. “They protect it,” she says. “They protect me. I don’t know what I would do without them.”
In the weeks to come, she may have no choice but to find out what life will be like without her Sunni protectors. As Iraq’s central authority continues its crackdown on militias, the future of the Sahwa is in doubt, and along with it the future of the sectarian ceasefire. At the same time, Sunni militants continue to prod the Shia: a bomb blast on Oct. 10 in a predominantly Shia enclave of Baghdad killed at least 12 civilians and injured 22 others, including women and children—only the latest evidence that some Sunnis haven’t given up on restarting Iraq’s inter-communal civil war. According to the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based policy group that has been monitoring Iraq’s displaced, communal violence in Iraq is generally on the rise once again, targeting families who attempt to return to the homes they vacated in both Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods.
That threatens whatever slight chance there is for reconciliation between the sects. With Baghdad’s neighbourhoods still divided, breaking down the barriers will not be easy. Umm Hussein is only willing to speak in qualified terms about the potential for a return to the tolerance that Baghdad once enjoyed—some day. The city has seen its thousand and one dark nights, but the bitter tale may grow longer.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.