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Young Iraqis are still trying to realize the democracy promised 20 years ago

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

Tomorrow will mark 20 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. The U.S. ousted Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, but what followed was years of bloodshed, sectarian violence and of the terror of suicide bombs. Now we're going to hear from a generation of Iraqis that have grown up in the years since. In Baghdad, NPR's Ruth Sherlock spoke with young Iraqis about how their lives have been shaped by the war and how they're now shaping Iraq's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The U.S. fired 600 cruise missiles at Iraq today.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: News reports like these from March 2003 are how Americans learned that the invasion of Iraq had started. In Baghdad today, Hajer Hadi tells me how dust storms had darkened the skies in what almost seemed like an omen.

HAJER HADI: I still remember that day. The sky was all orange. We would hear the bombs and the rockets being thrown.

SHERLOCK: I'm with Hadi in a cafe with a hipster vibe. There's colorful art on the walls and young men and women smoking shisha pipes. Hadi was just 9 years old when the invasion began. Now she's a PhD student studying molecular bacteriology and an assistant lecturer at the University of Baghdad. It's impressive by any measure, but even more so given that she lived in a war.

HADI: We started taking shelter more and more and no going out. We even had days - specific days to go grab food and come back.

SHERLOCK: Most of the time, in those early days of the invasion, the family had no electricity. She says her dad would sometimes use the car battery to power a radio just so that they could hear the news. Later, things got even worse.

HADI: Most of our teenage years were more scary, like, because you would see a lot of dead bodies lying on the street, or you would fear for your family being taken by a bombing or being kidnapped.

SHERLOCK: The crowd in this cafe represents the first generation that's grown up almost entirely since Saddam Hussein was ousted. They have lived through the years of insurgency, sectarian war, ISIS, and now a government that's elected but rife with corruption and struggling to provide public services, like electricity. Still, Hadi says there aren't many opportunities for scientists.

HADI: It's been 20 years, and we're still kind of in the same loop.

SHERLOCK: Other people her age are still working to realize a democracy that something like what was promised when Saddam was ousted.

MOHAMMED AL TAMIMI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Those is Mohammed al Tamimi (ph). He was 6 years old when American soldiers entered his grandmother's house, where the family had gathered to shelter from the war.

AL TAMIMI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: His uncle tried to stop them from roughly searching the women as well as the men. At that point, he says, several U.S troops let him have it, kicking and punching his uncle until he was on the ground. Tamimi says his dad then threw a blanket over his head to try to protect him from seeing more. Through our interpreter, Tamimi then talks about the years that Iraq descended into violence and the failings of the new state.

AL TAMIMI: (Through interpreter) All this misery situation is because the invasion of the Americans.

SHERLOCK: Older Iraqis sometimes say the current generation just doesn't remember how bad life was under Saddam, too. Tamimi recognizes that, but says that fact doesn't make life any better now. He pulls a string of worry beads through his hands as he tells me how he's trying to make a better Iraq. He's a university student and activist. I first met him a couple of years ago, during the elections that he and fellow protesters had helped to bring about.

AL TAMIMI: (Through interpreter) But what happened is not what we dream about. The American replace the tyrant regime by - with worse people.

SHERLOCK: In a local political office, Tamimi shows me videos he filmed of the massive crowds of protesters in 2019 that gathered to call for an end to corruption.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: The government response was brutal. Over 600 people died in the demonstrations that followed. Still, the movement did manage to unseat the government and force early elections under a new law that was meant to make the vote a little more representative. If the situation is improving since the time of Saddam, many Iraqis say it's in spite of the U.S. invasion and not because of it. And it's largely the effort of these young Iraqis, who yearn for the normal trappings of life found in other countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHERLOCK: We arrived at this upscale cafe and restaurant in Baghdad, and there's a live band playing and men and women and families.

A sign by the door quotes the Eagles song - you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. I sit down with Yousef Abbas. He's 24 and a civil engineering student, and he works as a cake chef to fund his studies. He has this thick, curly hair, a trendy mustache and beard and smiles a huge smile as he tells me why he loves coming here.

YOUSEF ABBAS: I love the music.

SHERLOCK: You love music?

ABBAS: Yes.

SHERLOCK: What kind of music do you like?

ABBAS: Hip-hop. Hip-hop. Hip-hop.

SHERLOCK: Hip-hop?

ABBAS: I love Billie Eilish, 50 Cent, Tupac.

SHERLOCK: Tupac? Oh, Tupac's a classic. Yeah.

He wanted to take part in the massive protests against the government, he says, but his father begged him not to go because they were so dangerous.

You guys are, like, the first generation that's really grown up after the invasion happened. What do you want to see Iraq become like?

ABBAS: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says he wants to see the state not so torn apart by different political parties from different religious sects. He wants a more developed health care and education system, and he wants Iraq to be the kind of place that people from all over would want to visit. I ask him if his is the generation that can make this happen.

ABBAS: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Yes, he says, because he believes his generation is less ideological, less sectarian than his parents' generations.

ABBAS: (Through interpreter) There are a lot of engineers, doctors and different educated people. They can develop Iraq.

SHERLOCK: It's an optimistic vision, but one that clashes pretty quickly with reality. Just moments later, he tells me that he, like so many other Iraqis, is trying, through the United Nations, to seek asylum abroad. There's work to be done in Iraq, he agrees, but the corruption and destruction of this country is so great. And he needs a better chance at life now.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.